Take a zany plot set in a place called Stain'd-by-the-Sea, where there is no longer any sea. Add a narrator who isn't quite sure himself exactly what is going on. Paint the whole thing as a parody of the "noir" style popularized by such hard-boiled mystery masters as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
Blend all these ingredients -- don't forget to stir in a huge dollop of dry humor at the last moment -- and you've got the latest children's novel by an author with the curious, or suspicious, name of Lemony Snicket.
Titled "Who Could That Be at This Hour?" (Little Brown, $15.99, ages 8-12), the newest novel by Snicket is the first book in a series called "All the Wrong Questions." "Lemony Snicket" is the sometimes pen name of Daniel Handler, who also writes books under his own name.
If the first book is any indication, it's a series that is pretty much guaranteed to delight young readers and baffle their parents.
The series also functions as prequel, of sorts, to Snicket's best-selling 13-book children's series titled "A Series of Unfortunate Events." In those books, he narrates the grim story of the orphaned Baudelaire children; in the new series, he tells how he got his start in a mysterious federation of detectives.
In a recent telephone interview, Mr. Handler talked about his new book, noting that "it's heavily influenced by noir," or "hard-boiled," mysteries, in which the detective has a cynical view of life and his/her work. The noir feel of "Who Could That Be at This Hour?" is further enhanced by the stylized illustrations done by an artist simply named Seth.
"I doubt that 'noir' means anything to kids," added Mr. Handler, who's long been a fan of noir fiction. "It's one of the strange things about genres like noir, that you're first introduced to them as a parody when you're young."
But Mr. Handler, 42, says he expects that "Who Could That Be at This Hour?" will resonate with kids as a "journey of childhood."
"There's something that people of all ages respond to about the idea of a lonely detective discovering moral corruption and still trying to find a clear path, even as he is being led around by the nose by a femme fatale," he said with his typical deadpan humor.
In "Who Could That Be at This Hour?," Snicket is being trained by a shadowy organization to do some unspecified clandestine activities under the tutelage of an inept, martinet-style trainer.
Here's how Mr. Handler opens the book: "There was a town, and there was a girl, and there was a theft. I was living in the town, and I was hired to investigate the theft, and I thought the girl had nothing to do with it. I was almost thirteen and I was wrong. I was wrong about all of it."
Snicket deliberately chooses to apprentice for a clueless trainer, S. Theodora Markson, figuring that this will allow him fuller scope to do the kind of work he feels he should be doing.
Unfortunately, Snicket's initial plans go awry almost immediately when Markson spirits him off to Stain'd-by-the-Sea and away from his sister and the undercover work they had planned to do together in the city.
In Stain'd-by-the-Sea, Snicket learns that he and Markson are supposed to steal an iconic statue called the Bombinating Beast and return it to someone who says she is the rightful owner. Snicket, however, discovers that the statue is actually with its rightful owner and that stealing it will put the statue in the wrong hands.
Meanwhile, Snicket meets two fascinating young women: Moxie Mallahan, who strives to report the town's news despite a shortage of ink; and the quick-witted Ellington Feint, who says she is searching for her kidnapped father but shows up in surprising places.
Snicket also strikes up an acquaintance with Dashiell Qwerty, the town's "sub-librarian," who is described as having "the hairstyle one gets if one is attacked by a scissors-carrying maniac and lives to tell the tale." With Qwerty's help, Snicket is able to send coded postcards to his sister to explain why he's not able to carry out their original plans.
As in the "Series of Unfortunate Events" books, Mr. Handler's dry wit, wordplay and perfect comic timing greatly expand the humorous confusion in "Who Could That Be at This Hour?" Readers may not get all of the literary allusions Mr. Handler packs into the story, and they certainly won't get answers to the many questions Snicket poses, but they'll still revel in following his progress, or lack thereof.
Mr. Handler, who also has written picture books as well as novels for teens and adults, says he first got the "germ of the idea" for the "All the Wrong Questions" series when he was finishing up "A Series of Unfortunate Events."
The new series will be a quartet, although each book will have 13 chapters, as 13 is a favorite number for Mr. Handler, who says he's "still stunned" by the literary success of "A Series of Unfortunate Events."
"I assumed that the books would be noble failures ... and that I would remain a mostly ignored slightly cultured writer," he said. "Well, the books aren't noble, but they're not failures either."books
Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.