Match Wits With Snicket! The Donald J. Sobol Legacy in File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents

Snicket and Sobol

The latest book from fictional character and author Lemony Snicket is, according to itself, not a book at all, but instead a collection of confidential case files. Similarly, the universe of books that these new stories derive from are not even novels, but, rather, accounts of “All the Wrong Questions” asked by young Lemony Snicket during his time in small town Stain’d-by-the-Sea. Depending on how familiar you are with all these machinations—a word here that means “characters doing the things they do”—you’ll likely have one of two reactions to File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents. For the avid Lemon Snicket reader, the book will serve as a companion to the “All the Wrong Questions” series, while someone new to Snicket and his whimsical wordplay will be met with quickly digestible tales which may hook them instantly.

Interestingly, while it’s possible to read any of the A Series of Unfortunate Events books out of order without getting too confused, it’s definitely not as satisfying as reading them in order. And while I’m loathe to say anything negative about that series, Daniel Handler (Snicket’s representative in our universe) has definitely created an air of accessibility in the newer All the Wrong Questions series that was missing for non-serial readers of A Series of Unfortunate Events. In stark raving contrast to the constantly on-the-move Baudelaire orphans, the stories and characters contained in the “All the Wrong Questions” are all relatively stationary: everyone hangs out in Stain’d-by-the Sea, the town that used to be have a thriving ink business and now just scares octopuses and harbors secrets. And with this latest companion volume, Handler has made Stain’d-by-the-Sea even more accessible by employing some tips-of-the-cap to a legendary children’s mystery writer: the late Donald J. Sobol.

Without question, Sobol is most famous for his Encyclopedia Brown series, a slickly readable series of books (first published in 1963) wherein a young boy solves seemingly everyday mysteries in a small suburban setting. Sobol also created the Two-Minute Mysteries, where the reader could read a brief mystery setup, then find its solution explained in the back of the book. File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents then is the mash-up of the Sobol sensibilities with the Snicket snarky sentimentality.  To prove it, here are two brief snippets of stories, one from File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents, the other from an Encyclopedia Brown story. I’ve removed the character names. I dare you to try and tell me which is Snicket and which is Sobol.

Snippet A

“Are you any good at swords?” he asked.

CHARACTER did not lift his eyes from his book, How to Build a Nuclear Reactor.

“What kind of game is swords?” he asked.

“It isn’t a game,” said the red-haired boy. “My name is CHARACTER. I want to hire you.”

Snippet B

“How many customers have you had today?” I asked CHARACTER.

“Not very many,” he said, “and none of them looked like spies.”

“Good spies don’t look like spies.”

Do you know who wrote which one? Could Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler be channeling Donald S. Sobol? I mean, if you really want the answer, you should just read Snicket and Sobol. Like all of Snicket’s work preceding it, File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents is brimming with literary references both overt and sly. Though the style of the stories here owes a great deal to Sobol, Handler goes ahead and names a few of the characters in one of the early stories “the Doctors Sobol.” What’s nice about these and other bookish references is that nothing distracts from the story if you’re a young child. Early on in the book a character declares that his friend “Mr. Samsa” has gotten sick. I know it’s possible Mr. Samsa got sick from turning into a cockroach a la The Metamorphosis, but a sixth grader doesn’t. This sort of “something for everyone” praise can get a little tiresome in regards to kids’ books or movies, but I think it’s more smartly done by Daniel Handler than any other children’s author in a long time.

My theory as to why this all works so well is because Daniel Handler is his own unique kind of inverse snob. A lot of authors would think putting a Kafka reference into your children’s books is a little pretensious—a word here that means “acting like you know everything”—but really, it seems to me that Handler just loves the books he loves equally. Kafka might not be as fun as Sobol, and Sobol might not be as famous as Kafka. But the power of Handler is in his ability to elevate children’s authors like Sobol out of being “just” kids’ authors and into something greater, and much more important than we might remember.

And in answer to your question: snippet A is Sobol, snippet B is Snicket. But really you could only tell because the latter is in the first person.

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