File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents

Book review by
Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media
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Fun, clever mini-mysteries let readers play detective.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Kids learn a bit about observing and listening carefully for clues to solve a mystery. They'll also be exposed to a rich vocabulary, encountering such words as gondolier, obtuse, grimace, derelict, ascot, preternaturally, insomniac, zygote, discomfiture, squalid, fritatta, and bone marrow. Some are introduced with a witty explanation in a way Snicket fans are familiar with ("a word which here means..."). Others are simply woven into the text. 

Positive Messages

There's an implied message that if you keep your eyes and ears open, ask questions, and put two and two together, you can solve most mysteries. Along the way, Snicket also offers wise, noir-ish observations that can serve as positive messages, such as: "Trouble is like grease. If you have it on you, you'll probably get it on everyone nearby." In the case of an annoying character, he notes, "Like a cactus, the best thing to do with him was ignore him, no matter how much he kept poking me." 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Snicket is smart, honest, dedicated, resourceful, kind, witty, generous with his time, and always willing to help solve a mystery and see that justice is done. He's surrounded by goofy, incompetent adults, but he's never snarky or insulting. Many of the characters from Book 1 and Book 2 of the All the Wrong Questions series appear here. He gets help from local "associates," including Jake Hix, the cook at Hungry's diner, librarian Dashiell Qwerty, taxi drivers Pip and Squeak, and young female reporter Moxie Mallahan. The mysterious Ellington Feint seems to make an appearance as well. These helpful souls contrast with bumbling cops Harvey and Mimi Mitchum and their mean son, Stew, and Snicket's clueless chaperone, S. Theodora Markson. 


Despite an air of menace, there's no violence other than a couple of broken shop windows, discovered in the morning after the breakage occurred. An angry father yells a threat to his son -- "I'm going to wallop you over and over" -- with a rolled-up magazine.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

One adult character smokes cigarillos, one of which gets left at a crime scene. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents by Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) is set in Stain'd-by-the Sea, the same fading town where "Who Could That Be at This Hour?" and "When Did You See Her Last?," the first two books in his noir-mystery series, All the Wrong Questions, take place. But this collection of 13 mini-mysteries stands on its own, as "13 reports" filed under "Suspicious Incidents" in the archive of Snicket's "secret organization," which was first revealed in the 13-volume A Series of Unfortunate Events. In that series, he's an adult. Here, he's a 12-year-old apprentice investigator living with a ditsy chaperone in the run-down Lost Arms Hotel. The story line begun in Books 1 and 2 of the series, which Snicket calls "my biggest case" and ​involves hunting down the fiendish villain Hangfire, will continue in Book 3 of All the Wrong Questions. Note: For the the audiobook version, the mystery stories are read by 13 different people, including MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, NPR's Terry Gross, children's authors Jon KlassenJon Scieszka​, Holly Black, Libba Bray​, illustrator Sophie Blackall, and more. 

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What's the story?

Twelve-year-old apprentice investigator Lemony Snicket is still in the fading, nearly empty town of Stain'd-by-the-Sea with many of the same characters introduced in Books 1 and 2 of the All the Wrong Questions series. One by one, 13 townsfolk tell him about a "suspicious incident," such as a rare newt gone missing, a kidnapped dog, and a suspected ghost -- ​and ask him to look into it. In each mini-mystery, facts and clues emerge, and then the story ends. Readers can try to solve the case themselves, then turn to the back of the book, under "Sub-File B: Conclusions," to read the solution, which is usually only one paragraph long. Note: Some solutions in that sub-file have no story to go with them but are amusing to read -- a fun and funny touch. And one of the suspicious incidents involves the Swinster Pharmacy, which also is the subject of Snicket's 2014 picture book 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy, illustrated by Lisa Brown (Daniel Handler's wife).

Is it any good?

FILE UNDER: 13 SUSPICIOUS INCIDENTS is a delight. It gives fans of the All The Wrong Questions series another book set in strange Stain'd-by-the Sea -- "a town that was hardly much more than nothing at all" -- to tide them over 'til Book 3. And it gives those who haven't started the series an intriguing introduction to the town's quirky characters and a few facts about Snicket's "biggest case," which he's been working on in Books 1 and 2. 

The writing itself is brilliant: light and funny for kids, yet expertly crafted as noir mystery. And a lot of appealing kid characters among the incompetent and sinister adults help make the bizarre setting and stories relatable. The black-and-white illustrations by Seth have the same offbeat, retro look and feel that was established in the All the Wrong Questions series.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about mysteries. Why are they so popular with all ages? 

  • How do the mini-mysteries in File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents compare with Snicket's "biggest case," unfolding in the All the Wrong Questions series? Is it fun seeing the characters from those books deal with other mysteries?

  • Identify a suspicious incident in your house, school, or neighborhood, gather clues, and then try to solve the mystery. 

Book details

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