Lemony Who?

A funny thing happened to the Waterstone's hardback bestseller list this summer. For weeks on end it featured several volumes from a series of (supposedly) children's novels. At least twice, the instalments so far published in Britain filled the top six slots, with Eoin Colfer's second Artemis Fowl fantasy also listed – leaving just three places for the whole of adult fiction and nonfiction. And, amazingly, this sequence isn't by the woman whom the Czechs insist on translating as J.K. Rowlingova ...

In fact it's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" by the unsubtly pseudonymous Lemony Snicket – an American called Daniel Handler, with illustrator Brett Helquist. Their books have the morbid fascination of the late great Edward Gorey's picture stories, which according to me is a good thing.

Gorey loved to describe doomed characters, often orphan children, coming to sticky ends: "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears ..." This keeps almost happening to Snicket's three tragic Baudelaire orphans, although it's the adults in their lives – beginning with their parents – who actually tend to get killed. Like Gorey's Victorian/Edwardian settings, the Snicket world of deadpan black comedy is strangely old-fashioned and hard to pin down geographically.

"If you are interested in stories with happy endings," warns the opening of The Bad Beginning, "you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle." Start as you mean to go on. Pursued by wickedly inventive Count Olaf – who's after the fortune they will one day inherit – the hapless children grapple with venomous snakes in The Reptile Room, the deadlier leeches of Lachrymose Lake in The Wide Window, the perils of heavy machinery and hypnosis at Lucky Smells Lumbermill in The Miserable Mill ... and so on.

Besides repeated warnings of gloom and doom, the narratives include much tongue-in-cheek educational uplift, such as the explanation following Olaf's reappearance in yet another transparent disguise: "This does not mean that the person is wearing plastic wrap or glass or anything else transparent." Likewise, when the youngest child Sunny – a mere baby – shrieks "Doog!" in "a generic cry of frustration", we learn that "The word 'generic' here means 'when one is unable to think of anything else to say.'"

Again and again, these harried but resourceful siblings are lodged with unsatisfactory guardians in bizarre locations. The food is awful. Adults who aren't from Olaf's sinister freak-show of henchpersons are otherwise malevolent, inept or insane. Dismal foreboding and terrible setbacks are varied with refreshing spells of outright despair. I can't imagine why one finds oneself giggling.

This year saw a peculiar spinoff, Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorised Autobiography, whose American edition (though not the British one) comes with a dust-jacket that can be reversed to make it seem an entirely different and much more cheerful volume: "Disguising this book, and yourself if necessary, may be your only hope."

The Autobiography threatens to reveal more about the back-story behind the series, about Lemony Snicket's personal involvement and criminal record, about the mysterious V.F.D. that's bafflingly mentioned in The Austere Academy and The Ersatz Elevator, and about the fate of our author's sweetheart. A typical dedication, from book 5:

"For Beatrice – You will always be in my heart,
in my mind,
and in your grave."

Alas, though full of weirdness, the autobiography echoes another of Edward Gorey's narrative tricks – providing a series of tableaux or stage properties that look as though they could be pieced together into a story, but don't quite fit. It's a book of manic lists, pointless digressions, disputed testimony, unhelpful diagrams, gloomily ambiguous photographs, and downright silly texts masking every-11th-word code messages. Snicket's own newspaper obituary appears ("His age was given as 'tall, with brown eyes.' He leaves no known survivors."), but is strongly disputed by the author.

Overall, this dubious work builds up an atmosphere of comic dread while revealing rather little - – although there's much confirmation of Snicket's complicity in the secret society V.F.D., and we gather at last why Count Olaf has an eye tattooed on his ankle. Anyone wondering what V.F.D. really stands for will find all too many unlikely possibilities. This series will run and run ... to thirteen volumes, apparently.

David Langford awaits book 7 – The Vile Village – with a sense of Vague Fearful Doom.