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The New Zealand Herald

Lemony Snicket aka Daniel Handler entertains a young audience at Auckland's Milford Primary School. Picture / Paul Estcourt

Lemony Snicket: The nerd our children love


My daughter Moira and I have developed a new theory about Beatrice, the mysterious person to whom all of Lemony Snicket's grim little books about the Baudelaire orphans are dedicated.

Beatrice, beloved of the author, has come to a tragic end, the undisclosed nature of which is a cunning part of the Lemony Snicket mystique and myth-making.

"To Beatrice darling, dearest, dead," he mournfully inscribes on the dedication page of The Bad Beginning, the first book of what is eventually to be the 13-volume A Series of Unfortunate Events. "For Beatrice - I would much prefer it if you were alive and well," he writes in book number three, The Wide Window; and, in the just-released number six, The Ersatz Elevator, he's still at it: "For Beatrice - When we met, my life began. Soon afterward, yours ended."

So it seemed an excellent starting point for a 9-year-old conducting her first interview, and Moira, sitting in the back of the publisher's car with her literary hero du jour, puts it in the most direct way she knows: "Who is Beatrice?" she begins. Well, why not? It's what we all want to know. But he's a slippery, tart character this Lemony Snicket - his very name makes you want to purse your lips and, as he says, he can play this game all night.

"Before I can answer that question," he says, rather smugly and meanly, I thought, "you must first ask the question: what was her last name? That is the important question."

But when she does, he slams the next answer down like a black chess piece checkmating a white king: "Oh, you see, that's not the question that you want to ask. Before you ask that question you have to ask how exactly did she die? That's really the crucial question ... "

And so it goes, around in orchestrated circles. He would have Moira ask him who killed Beatrice ("Once you have that, it all falls into place!"), and then tells her he can't answer that until she asks ... who is Beatrice?

"But I just did!" she says, giggling, confused. Then, producing what she thinks is her coup de grace - a truly tricky question: "Why does it make you feel uncomfortable to talk about her?"

"Because," Lemony Snicket says grandly, "it is an uncomfortable and terrible matter. That's why in all the books that I've written about the Baudelaires I've only been able to leave small clues so that only if you were really reading and re-reading obsessively these terrible books would you be able to learn the story of Beatrice. That's the only way. Oh, it probably will become clear in the next books, yes. But tell me, have you ever wondered, Moira, whether there were any survivors in the Baudelaire fire?"

Frowning with doubt, Moira casts her mind back to The Bad Beginning, to the tragic first chapter when the Baudelaire children - Violet, Klaus and baby Sunny - learn that their parents have perished in a terrible fire that also destroys the enormous home in which they have, until then, been happily living. Those events forced the charming, clever but extremely unlucky children into the highly questionable guardianship of a distant relative, the evil Count Olaf, whose only goal is to secure for himself the Baudelaire fortune, not available to the children themselves until they are of age.

Although by the end of the first book they are removed from his care after his dastardly plan to marry the 14-year-old Violet is unmasked at the last moment, he pursues them through the following books, in one disguise after another.

"Well," Moira says slowly, trying to figure out what Lemony Snicket is implying, "their parents didn't survive the fire. I don't think they did, anyway."

"Have you gone to the site of the fire and checked out the evidence for yourself?" he interrogates her, and Moira has to admit that she has not. But this exchange caused us to later revisit the question with which Moira kicked off the interview, and we together arrived at a startling conclusion which we cannot possibly reveal for fear of spoiling the books for others, but which you, reader, are now also at liberty to deduce.

Lemony Snicket is a phenomenon in the world of children's books. While a little slower to catch on in New Zealand, in his native United States his popularity is revealed in the New York Times bestseller lists where, at the beginning of July, his books occupied five out of the 10 top places (four of the remaining places were taken by J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, and the one remaining spot was taken by Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl). With our great tendency to perceive dichotomies, Snicket and Rowling are often set against each other in a kind of "either/or" game of preference or exclusion, but in fact they are both terrific.

Moira tells Snicket she has read three Harry Potter books (although, actually, she far prefers Lemony Snicket) and he feigns amazement. "I can't even lift three Harry Potter books!" before agreeing that he's read one and liked it.

"What is it like to be 'in'?" Moira asks, displaying a fine sense of irony, for this rather nerdy writer made in-ness itself into a satiric theme in The Ersatz Elevator, in which the wicked and silly Esme Squalor ("the city's sixth most important financial adviser") lives in a frenzy of trend-adherence, allowing her husband's relatives, the Baudelaires, into their home simply because orphans are 'in'.

"Sort of a fluttery feeling," he reveals in a rare moment of simple and rather endearing sincerity, swiftly covered up by: "Too bad you're not an orphan because then you'd know what it was like to be in ...

"Does it make it harder to take myself seriously? I've always had extreme difficulty taking myself seriously, so I don't find it particularly harder now."

But in fact there is something tightly constructed about the Lemony Snicket phenomenon which makes you think that he indeed takes himself extremely seriously. There is no winking aside to let you know it's all a joke and you've been let into it. He sticks to his story: that he is not in fact Lemony Snicket at all, but merely Daniel Handler, a friend of the author who has been forced at late notice to step in and conduct interviews, readings and signings. He even shows you, after considerable dramatic build-up, a fearsome black bug which he explains has incapacitated the great author with its bite.

Handler himself is 31 years old and slightly nerdy-looking in his grey pin-stripe suit (which just doesn't seem to be cut quite right).

His well-bred California-accented voice, which still pipes rather, betrays him as a former soprano soloist in the San Francisco boys' choir, which toured here some years ago.

As a kid he loved to read, he tells Moira, especially the books of Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey. He always wanted to write, and he says he both enjoys it and finds it hard. The Basic Eight his first novel, was for adults, but a number of publishers approached him after its release, suggesting he try his hand at children's novels. He spent an evening drinking whiskey with an editor at HarperCollins and they both got enthused about doing a series of mock-gothic novels, an idea that still looked good in the morning.

The books, which appear emblazoned with the warning, "Readers, beware," are as carefully imagined and presented as their author. Hard cover, their end-papers in what looks like Victorian wallpaper, an ex libris bookplate featuring the orphans and the count in his latest disguise, and with the pages of quality stock, rough cut to resemble those of old-fashioned books that had to be cut apart, they have a Victorian feel which is echoed in the tongue-in-cheek, pedantic, schoolmarmish tone of Lemony Snicket's narration.

And along with all this comes the marketing, the success of which is indicated in the headlines to articles about the Snicket books: "Lemony Snicket Says, 'Don't Read My Books!"' ... "Unhappily Ever After" ... "Oh, Sweet Misery!"

It's all in reverse, and therefore perfectly complements human nature. When Moira tells him she hadn't been able to sleep after Count Olaf apparently threw the Baudelaires' Aunt Josephine to her death in The Wide Window, he is not surprised.

"Probably by the time you've finished the book you'll be bald, because most people who read that book have become so depressed that they've torn out all their hair," he doomsays.

All the books come with a letter of warning on the back cover, such as this one from The Ersatz Elevator: "If you have just picked up this book, then it is not too late to put it back down."