Two Middle-Grade Mysteries with Ageless Appeal: “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” and Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire!

whocouldthatbe

“Who Could That Be at This Hour?” All The Wrong Questions #1

by Lemony Snicket

Art by Seth

Little, Brown and Company 2012

mr_mrs_bunny_cover

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny – Detectives Extraordinaire!

by Mrs. Bunny, translated from the Rabbit by Polly Horvath

art by Sophie Blackall

Schwartz & Wade Books, 2012

reviews by Tessa

Lately, even with the weather soaring to climate-change induced heights instead of wintery lows, I’ve still been craving cozy reading.  For me that usually means something funny, fast, and in a genre.  I really  hit the jackpot this week and last, with two middle-grade-marketed mysteries that could be read and enjoyed by anyone except maybe for babies, who knows what babies are thinking.

who even knows. from Open Clip Art library

who even knows. from Open Clip Art library

The only thing you have to ask yourself is: do I want to be reading something atmospheric and silly or aggressively silly?  For the former there’s “Who Could That Be at This Hour?”, the first in the All the Wrong Questions series by Lemony Snicket (illustrated by Seth) and for the latter, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire! by Mrs. Bunny, translated from Rabbit by Polly Horvath and illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

Seth! Seth! Seth!

Seth! Seth! Seth!

“Twice I almost fell asleep thinking of places and people in the city that were dearly important to me, and the distance between them and myself growing and growing until the distance grew so vast that even the longest-tongued bat in the world could not lick the life I was leaving behind.” (21)

“Who Could That Be at This Hour?” brings back Snicket in top form, but this time he delves into his own sad and action-packed past, reviewing all the wrong questions he’s asked throughout his life, and presumably leading to tragedy and further mystery.

We find him, at the opening of the story, (you can preview the first chapter here) in a greasy tearoom at a train station, saying goodbye to his parents at the age of 13 and going to act as an apprentice of some sort to someone.  The mystery begins at once, for he does not get on the train. A woman with wild hair drops a note on his lap, giving him five minutes to meet her out front in her roadster–but he must leave through the bathroom window.  Evidently prepared for this, Snicket finds the ladder stowed in the bathroom and exits, but is not prepared to be whisked out of the city to a new destination.

There’s someone in the city waiting for Snicket to help investigate important things in the sewer system, but there isn’t a way for him to go back. He’s now apprenticed to S. Theodora Markson, ranked 52 on the list of as many people with whom it was possible to apprentice, and on his way to Stain’d by the Sea, a seaside town no longer by the seaside.

Seth's illustrations add to the considerable atmosphere of the book.

Seth’s illustrations add to the considerable atmosphere of the book.

Markson and Snicket pass deep wells where giant needles dip in and out, harvesting ink from frightened octopi, the last of their kind.  A bell rings and Snicket is told to wear a silver mask because of “water pressure” although there is no water around. It’s just a taste of the confounding and lonely things to come. He finds that they will be investigating the burglary of a statue of a legendary sea creature–said to be taken from the home of one prominent family in town by members of the other prominent family, and yet the two families are not enemies.

Along the way there are the usual vocabulary lessons (“bombinating”, “hawser”), dryly specific advice, but not as much advice as the Snicket who narrates The Series of Unfortunate Events dispenses. “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” is about a much less assured Snicket at a much more malleable time in his life.  He’s probably still smarter than his mentor, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t acting a little impulsively and having melancholy adolescent feelings about things, as opposed to the older and more settled in inevitable sadness voice from the previous series of Snicket books. There are even two possible romantic interests and a hint that we will learn about some Snicket family members. For me this meant extra emotional depth in a quick read, just as I had hoped for and expected. The mysteries just keep begetting more mysteries, like a man whose hat is filled with men wearing hats containing ever tinier men with hats and so on. In other words: delicious complications!

Readalikes:

Just go back and re-read Series of Unfortunate Events, as I plan to. Or start on the Mysterious Benedict Society series, by Trenton Lee Stewart, which has a similar tone and feel.

Mr. & Mrs.!

Mr. & Mrs.!

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire! has very little melancholy (unless you’re severely inclined to it) and, perhaps in its place, a lot of silliness. Fierce silliness. Unselfconscious silliness.

I admit that I initially checked this book out because of Sophie Blackall, being a huge fan of her art. And it took me a bit to get into the story, which starts out with the human side of things, explaining 5th-grader Madeline’s world, where she’s the square living with a Canadian commune of benign, marimba-playing, luminaria-loving, monarchy-disdaining hippies (including her parents, Flo and Mildred).  The descriptions came off as odd and forced-whimsical with a whiff of mockery, without being charming. I’ll get to the bunnies and then make my decision, I thought.

Luckily for me, the second chapter introduces Mr. and Mrs. Bunny. They are a couple set in their ways but given to impulse, and with a great bantering style. And the second page of the second chapter stops to note that

“Marmots, of course, were the bane of many a bunny’s existence. With their constant whining and tendency to matted fur, no one wanted to live around a marmot. Except perhaps another marmot. And sometimes not even they.”

a marmot, provided by Wikimedia

a marmot, provided by Wikimedia

I used to make zines for my sister, and one of them had a nice large picture of a marmot. I’d intended to make this an ad for the organization M.A.R.M.O.T. but could not think of a phrase to fill out the acronym. Now, any book that understood the comic possibilities of marmots was one that I would definitely have to read.

Good thing, because Mr. & Mrs. Bunny may not be great detectives but it’s fun to follow them as they bumble along with gumption.  As a couple, they don’t come off as a stereotype of an old bickering married pair, although they have been married for a long time and they do bicker.  There’s something about them that still seems fresh. It could be that they are scatterbrained. It could be that when Mrs. Bunny starts poking Mr. Bunny in the side for emphasis, she continues to do so because it’s fun, and then Mr. Bunny pretends not to notice but saves the retaliatory pokes for later, when she won’t expect it – and later in the narrative where it’s funnier to see brought up again.

It’s also a jumbled world where Foxes can learn to speak English in order to decode recipes for making food of rabbits, where bunnys can drive cars and build villages with freestanding Olde Spaghetti Factories, just like human towns, but clearly have their own bunny priorities like too much fursweating under a waterproof cap, or being called in front of the dreaded Bunny Council.

I laughed and/or smiled many times to myself while reading it, especially for the parts where the ongoing joke about Madeline having a gigantic bottom came up.  I even laughed in public while reading alone at a bar. That alone makes a it recommend-worthy, I think, and the mystery itself is solved in an escalating way filled with madcap rubbery red herrings all over the place.  There’s even a couple phrases of Fox to be learned from it, and also how to hypnotize a marmot.

Readalikes:

M.T. Anderson’s Thrilling Tales series (start with Whales on Stilts!) is pretty close in humor, although a bit more absurd.  And you’d do well to also read Maryrose Wood‘s Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series, also delightfully illustrated by a talented person, Jon Klassen.

PLEASE LEAVE YOUR SUGGESTIONS FOR WHAT M.A.R.M.O.T. STANDS FOR IN THE COMMENTS. Prizes possible.

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12 Comments

  1. Marmot-sized motorcycles? This must be illustrated! Call up Sophie Blackall!

    Reply
  2. M.A.R.M.O.T. stands for:

    M.A.R.M.O.T. Actually Reference Many Other Things

    which in turn stands for:

    M.A.R.M.O.T. Agents Ridiculously Manufacture Obfuscations That Actually Reference Many Other Things

    which in turn stands for:

    M.A.R.M.O.T. Assert Really Melancholy Or Tired Agents Ridiculously Manufacture Obfuscations That Actually Reference Many Other Things

    which in turn stands for:

    M.A.R.M.O.T. Accords Reveal Magical Ocelots Theocratically Assert Really Melancholy Or Tired Agents Ridiculously Manufacture Obfuscations That Actually Reference Many Other Things

    Reply
  3. oh, jeez, frightened octopi is about the saddest thing i’ve ever heard! (i must read that immediately). what a great review!

    Mentally Active Reading Marmots Overthrow Theocracy?
    Marginally-Aware Rodents May Own Teashops?
    Milksop Animals Running Marmot-Only Tuesdays?
    Making Another Ruinous Marmot On Time?

    okay, i’m gonna go get a life now. marmots!

    Reply
  4. Marmots Arduously Riding Motorcycles Over Traintracks

    A first pass. I can do better.

    Reply

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