Little, Brown, 272 pp.; $15.99, for readers 8 and up
What is a bombinating beast, and why would anyone make a statue of it, much less steal it, in a city nowhere near an ocean that's nevertheless known as Stain'd by the Sea? These, and other alliterative oddities, are at the center of "Who Could That Be at This Hour?" — a Pink Panther-esque page turner that marks the return of eccentric narrator Lemony Snicket, who was last heard from six years ago with "The End" to his 13-book "A Series of Unfortunate Events."
The events in "Who Could That Be at This Hour?" are no less fortunate. They do, however, turn back the clock to a time when phones plugged into the wall, music was played on vinyl records and Snicket — self-described as an excellent reader, good cook, mediocre musician and awful quarreler — was just 12 years old. Despite his tender age, Snicket is an apprentice in a secret organization who, as he's constantly reminded by his chaperone, asks all the wrong questions as he attempts to discover why someone would " say something was stolen when it was never theirs to begin with?"
The kickoff to the new four-book illustrated series titled "All the Wrong Questions" opens with an introduction that would likely be dismissed as third-grade drivel if not for the notoriety of the author who penned it: "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 wrong."
So begins a contrarian story that unfolds near a sea with no water, a forest without trees and a city that's mostly unpopulated. The few people who live there are, of course, strange. There's typewriter-toting tween journalist Moxie Mallahan, "sub-librarian" Dashiell Qwerty and a pair of kids named Pip and Squeak who operate the town's sole taxi with one sitting in the driver's seat atop a stack of books and the other down below, working the pedals.
The Snicket style of storytelling is exceptionally literary and entirely singular. Characterized by linguistic playfulness and an appreciation for the archaic, "Who Could That Be at This Hour?" is frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious, as Snicket spars with his delightfully inept chaperon, who makes their investigation into the whereabouts of the missing statue far more complicated than it needs to be. Leave it to S. Theodora Markson to suspect the burglar must have broken into the mansion where the statue — "valued at upward of a great deal of money" — was supposedly stolen by sawing a hole in the ceiling and replastering it. When Snicket suggests a door was the more likely entry point, Theodora inevitably responds with an over-the-top dressing down.
As in "Unfortunate Events," there are page-long digressions detailing Italian pasta recipes and a plethora of highfalutin vocabulary words, which are always defined, often in the bicker-banter of dialogue. The black, gray and blue illustrations by celebrated cartoonist Seth only add to the throwback gumshoe vibe of this outrageous, long-overdue, middle-grade follow-up series from a truly beloved narrator.