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BBC

LEMONY SNICKET: PROFILE

Tuesday 17 December 8.30pm-9pm; rpt 11.30pm-midnight; Friday 27 December 8pm-8.30pm

"Not only is there no happy ending. There is no happy beginning, and very few happy things in the middle."

Gloomy plots

Thus Lemony Snicket warns his young readers that reading his books will not be the snuggled-up ride they may expect from their fiction.

With his dark, gloomy plots, complicated words and page-long digressions, Snicket provides an antithesis to Harry Potter. In his 13-book Series of Unfortunate Events, the Baudelaire orphans are armed only with bad luck, and subjected to the whims of distant, deranged relatives.

Woeful world

There is no magic wand, heroics go unrewarded and bullies go unpunished. Snicket's world is a woeful one, but he has faith in his young readers' ability to get the joke. His sales of five million and growing suggest he's right.

Last year saw five of Snicket's titles on the New York Times best-sellers list. The orphans' adventures have been translated into 19 languages and will be filmed next year. Not bad for an idea drummed up by Snicket and his editor Sue Rich, while they were knocking back a barrel of Whiskey Sidecars. "I couldn't believe Sue even remembered the conversation," says Snicket.

Identity revealed

Until then, the man behind the Snicket, American Daniel Handler, had enjoyed moderate success with novels for adults (not "adult novels", he stresses). An accordionist for the cult band Magnetic Fields in his spare time, Handler came by chance upon his nom de plume.

Researching right-wing groups for his novel The Basic Eight, he was trying to avoid being put on a mailing list. Asked for his name, the words "Lemony Snicket" popped out.

In-joke

Handler's friends had long since adopted the moniker for ordering pizzas and writing to newspapers. Seeing their in-joke became a global brand is, for them, like "seeing your old sock on the television".

Handler has maintained a comical enigma. When he appears on television, it is because his client "Mr Snicket has unfortunately been eaten by a crocodile on the way". There is a Snicket cocktail, but only to be drunk in "unhappy hour". There is an autobiography, but it is "unauthorised".

Mr Snicket even warns his young fans that "under no circumstances should anyone be reading these books for entertainment". Nevertheless, his growing audiences are happy to enter his feel-bad world, and seek out their fun in the strangest of places.

Caroline Frost