"When Did You See Her Last?" by Lemony Snicket (Little Brown, October 2013, middle grade) is the second Wrong Question (there were other, minor wrong questions, but this was the Important One) asked by young Snicket as he ventures ever deeper into the dark mysteries of Stain'd-by-the-Sea. The "her" in the titular question is Cleo Knight, daughter of the family once made rich from the town's octopi, but now, with the ocean gone and the octopi endangered, facing financial ruin (and other worse things). One of the worse things is the disappearance of Cleo, and that is the central mystery of this book.
I have a low tolerance for wackiness used to no good point, and I do not like to be confused. Happily for me, and for like-minded readers, though there is much that is truly bizarre to be found on the seaweed flats and deserted streets of Stain'd-by-the-sea, there is (I'm pretty sure) a Point to it all, and slowly the tangling threads of myriad stories come together to hint at some future resolution when all confusion becomes less confused. Which is to say--no-one is telling each other all they know, and Snicket sure isn't telling the reader, but it manages to work very nicely indeed as a gripping mystery.
And I like young Lemony and his equally young companions in confusion very much indeed. They are putting effort into staving off disaster, care about their loved ones, and are full of grit and intelligence.
The pace of the story is slowed by disquisitions and distractions, but much as fog lends noir-ness to the urban streetscape (or something), pauses to enjoy fun with vocabulary building obscured the story less than one might have expected. Here's what I'd like--a list of all the literary allusions, of which there were many. Some I recognized (Harriet the Spy, for instance, was easy), but others made me want to put down the book and find answers. But I was enjoying it too much to do so....
Not for the reader who likes a clear path through the trees, but an excellent one for the young reader who doesn't.
"When Did You See Her Last?" is the second in a four volume series of All the Wrong Questions, and needs to be read second. I liked it more than book one, because I knew what not to expect.
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher
(I'm going with fantasy in my label section because it sure isn't realistic, and there might, or might not, be a monster, and because of the implausibility of a. the octopi and b. Cleo Knight's car.)