Lemony Snicket's Musical Murder Mystery The popular children's book author turns his attention to a macabre event at the orchestra, complete with music and illustrations. Daniel Handler, acting as Mr. Snicket's mouthpiece, investigates the mystery, starting with the death of the composer.
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Lemony Snicket's Musical Murder Mystery

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Lemony Snicket's Musical Murder Mystery

Lemony Snicket's Musical Murder Mystery

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

There is a mystery to be solved in the orchestra.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DANIEL HANDLER (Author): (as Lemony Snicket) The composer is dead.

NORRIS: Could it be murder? Quite a dastardly crime, and if so, the suspect is still at large. To help us get to the bottom of this, we're joined by author Lemony Snicket, author of the popular children's books known as "A Series of Unfortunate Events." And now, he's been following the death of the composer.

Well, we couldn't actually get Mr. Snicket, and we're sorry about that, but we're joined by his representative, a fellow named Daniel Handler. And it turns out that Daniel Handler is very, very, very close to Mr. Snicket. Welcome to our program.

Mr. HANDLER: It's always a pleasure to be here.

NORRIS: Mr. - excuse me - Mr. Handler, could you please tell us a little bit about this crime?

Mr. HANDLER: Well, the composer is found - on the first page of this book, "The Composer Is Dead" - sprawled across a writing table, his inkwell spilling on the music he was writing. And because his death seems so suspicious, our attention turns naturally to members of the orchestra.

Anyone who enjoys classical music knows that members of the orchestra are automatically suspicious people, accused almost constantly of various treacheries. And so it seemed natural that they might be responsible for the death of the composer.

NORRIS: Now, we're going to get to the investigation in just a moment. But in that picture where the composer, with that wonderful quill pen and his curly locks and his wonderful footwear, is leaning on his table, and he's not composing. He is instead…

Mr. HANDLER: Decomposing. It's the cheapest joke in the world, but why not open a book with it, I thought?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANDLER: And indeed, those illustrations are by Carson Ellis, and she's done a gorgeous job.

NORRIS: Tell me about the inspector. He's very jaunty. You can tell, just from these drawings, from his three-piece suit and his pocketwatch, that he's a man who's very self-aware.

Mr. HANDLER: The text that Mr. Snicket wrote, describes him as an intelligent and handsome man, much like the author himself, who is filled with a sense of righteous anger towards solving this terrible crime.

NORRIS: So he's befuddled, though, and he moves from section of the orchestra to section of the orchestra, going from instrument to instrument, and we learn about the characters of these various instruments. And it's interesting the way that you introduce this idea, the clarinets, for instance, can be sneaky, the tubas can hold their own. This is really a teaching tool.

Mr. HANDLER: Well, the idea for the piece began when Mr. Stookey, the composer in question, was working with the San Francisco Youth Symphony and so got me the gig narrating "Peter and the Wolf" for a couple of performances.

"Peter and the Wolf" is this longstanding Prokofiev piece that tries to teach people about the orchestra and has a narrator that is telling a story. And as the narrator, I was frustrated with the story, which I found very annoying, and then it also occurred to me that A, so many people were tired of taking their children to hear "Peter and the Wolf" over and over again. And that B, in some ways, "Peter and the Wolf" doesn't really teach you about the orchestra.

And as someone who had grown up on classical music and was in love with the orchestra, I saw there was an opportunity here to make a piece that might speak more directly about the instruments and how they work together. It was so much fun to dive deep into the orchestra and think about what a miracle the orchestra is. They come together to make this kind of noble and yet also somewhat sinister enterprise.

It always looks a bit like the mafia. People arrive on stage, they have strange black cases, they sit in chairs and then finally they play in unison something that is both alluring and mysterious.

NORRIS: The mafia?

Mr. HANDLER: Well, yes. When's the last you've seen a bunch of people all dressed up carrying suspicious black cases? I can't think of anything else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Well, I want to get back to this investigation because it's interesting. The investigator in this case goes through several instruments, and he finally gets to the percussionist. And one of the things that I really have enjoyed about this book is that it's not just a book. It also comes with a CD, where you hear this performance. And before we go on, I'd love to take a listen to this portion of the story where the investigator encounters the percussionist.

(Soundbite of CD, "The Composer is Dead")

Unidentified Man #1: We drummed. We percussed. We employed a xylophononist and cymbalism. We heard the beat and beat the herd. We struck up and got down. We conquered the concerts, battered the band, agitated the audience, rattled the roof and got the phone numbers of several very attractive young sailors.

(Soundbite of drumming)

Unidentified Man #1: By then we were beat, too exhausted to commit murder.

NORRIS: So, he still doesn't know who killed the composer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: So, when - at the end of the story, the investigator discovers that the conductor and the instruments and the people who play the instruments are all complicit in this crime. They all played a role in slaying the composer and his work. And I'm wondering about the overall message, Mr. Handler, because this is entertaining, but it could also intimidate children, children who themselves might be learning how to play an instrument and might be afraid of committing homicide themselves.

Mr. HANDLER: All of us have butchered a composer at one time or another. But in my mind, that brings the lesson that while most composers that people can name are indeed dead, that classical music is alive and well.

NORRIS: You know, this book is meant to be read aloud. And there is one section, and I read it to my own children, and they took particular delight.

Mr. HANDLER: It's true that towards the end of the book, the inspector realizes that not only is the unnamed composer of the title dead, but there seems to be a conspiracy that all of the composers that are so famed are also dead. So it appears to be part of a large grand conspiracy, again, not unlike organized crime.

Beethoven, dead. Bach, dead. Brahms, dead. Mozart, dead. Hayden, dead. Schubert, unfinished, but dead. Mahler, Mahler, Mahler, dead. Chopin, romantic, but dead. Tchaikovsky, dramatic, dead. Stravinsky, ecstatic, dead. Schoenberg, incomprehensible, but dead.

NORRIS: You end with this crescendo of Italian composers, which just seem to march across the tongue.

Mr. HANDLER: Yes. See, we're brushing up against organized crime…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANDLER: Corelli, Bellini, Puccini, Rossini, Scarlatti, Busoni, Boccherini, Verdi, so many dead composers. It is really quite a shock.

NORRIS: But the message here, in the end, is that one should not be afraid of killing a composer, that they should just enjoy the moment, go with it.

Mr. HANDLER: Absolutely. It's not the man who makes the thing, it is the thing itself.

NORRIS: Always, always good to talk to you.

Mr. HANDLER: And to you, ma'am.

NORRIS: Daniel Handler, he's the author - oops, I mean, Lemony Snicket is the author of the new book, "The Composer is Dead." We've been talking to his representative, Daniel Handler. You can hear the music from "The Composer is Dead" at nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HANDLER: The conductor didn't work alone. All of us have butchered a composer at one time or another, but we also keep composers alive. Without strings and woodwinds, without brass and percussion, there would be no composing at all.

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