We’ve reached the final chapter of The Penultimate Peril, the penultimate instalment in A Series of Unfortunate Events. As of the end of the previous chapter the Baudelaires appeared to have joined forces with Count Olaf in order to escape from the Hotel Denouement. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, Sunny even made the suggestion to burn down the hotel. Have our heroes joined the dark side?
The children set a fire in the laundry room and then they all head for the elevators. Sunny presses all the buttons to make sure Olaf doesn’t have enough time to release his fungus and also to give them a chance to warn the people in the hotel about the fire. Up on the roof, Justice Strauss pleads with the children not to go with Olaf, but they don’t see that they have a choice so with the hotel burning beneath them, they push the boat towards the sea.
Thoughts as I read:
The picture that starts off this chapter runs right across two pages and shows a massive fire taking hold on the edge of the pond. We know it’s at the edge of a pond because you can see the reflection of the words ‘Chapter Thirteen’ and the opening paragraph ‘reflected’ on the bottom half of the page. I’m guessing this is what the hotel will look like once Sunny is finished with it.
Olaf sounds rather thrilled at the prospect of Sunny wanting to burn down the hotel. He’s already admired Klaus’s research skills and Violet’s inventing skills, now Sunny seems to have taken up a cause dear to his heart. Perhaps his regretting trying to off them before when he could have actually been moulding them into his own personal minions.
Violet tries to tell Olaf that Sunny doesn’t know what she’s saying, but Sunny is adamant that the hotel should be burned down. Meanwhile Olaf has become strangely proud of Sunny:
“That’s my girl!” Count Olaf cried. “I only wish Carmelita had your spunk! With all the errands I had to do, burning down this hotel hadn’t even occurred to me. But even when you’re very busy, you should always take time for your hobbies.”
I’m not sure I would class arson as a hobby.
Justice Strauss is determined to stop Olaf, but there’s really little that she can do, especially as Olaf has just told the children to set the fire in the laundry room. Violet and Klaus are still trying to work out what’s come over their little sister, but before they can gag her so she doesn’t make any more dangerous suggestions, Sunny says ‘Help me’ so it becomes obvious that she has some sort of a plan.
So the next thing we know, Olaf is telling the children how best to start a fire. And now we know why that picture at the beginning of the last chapter showed the bottle as containing something flammable. Olaf always carries matches and he pinches Jerome’s book from Strauss to use as kindling. We catch a glimpse of a page of the book, before it goes up in flames, with some sort of diagram and the word ‘passageway’. But soon it’s on fire and whatever Jerome had written about disappears.
The burning of a book is a sad, sad sight, for even though a book is nothing but ink and paper, it feels as if the ideas contained in the book are disappearing as the pages turn to ashes and the cover and binding – which is the term for the stitching and glue that holds the pages together – blacken and curl as the flames do their wicked work. When someone is burning a book, they are showing utter contempt for all of the thinking that produced its ideas, all of the labor that went into its words and sentences, and all of the trouble that befell the author, from the swarm of termites that tried to destroy his notes, to the large boulder that someone rolled onto the illustrator as he sat by the edge of the pond waiting for the delivery of the manuscript.
I’m guessing the second half of that quote is the reason why you shouldn’t burn this particular book.
The burning of Jerome’s book reminds the children of the fire which killed their parents and prompted this whole series of unfortunate events and are hoping that this will be the last fire they have to deal with. Somehow, if you’re taking off with Count Olaf, I don’t think that this will be the last fire you see, guys.
Olaf is in high spirits as they head for the elevators again. He’s still hopeful that they’ll be able to release the fungus, even if the cocktail party will be cancelled. Guy’s got his priorities straight. The children don’t have much choice but to follow him. I hope they haven’t made a big mistake here. And just where is the sugar bowl anyway?!
Sunny wanted to take the staircase, as per the sign warning not to use the lifts if there’s a fire, but Olaf won’t hear of it. Sunny’s response, ‘Drat’ suggests that this was part of her plan. She follows it up by saying ‘Preludio’. Violet translates this as Sunny thanking Olaf for the letting in fire starting, but what she actually meant was a reference to the Hotel Preludio where the Baudelaires stayed with their parents. This prompts Snicket to tell us all about the hotel as well as the prank that Mr Baudelaire taught his children; that old chestnut where you press all the buttons in the lift, so that it will have to stop at every floor.
Olaf is not impressed by this as it means he won’t have time to Medusoid Mycelium everyone; Justice Strauss is pleased because she’ll be able to warn everyone on each floor about the fire; and Sunny just smiles as says ‘Dual purpose’. Well done Sunny, even if you did think the best way to behave involved burning down a hotel full of people.
We also learn that the people wandering around the hotel are still blindfolded. Because they’re all idiots. They do learn that Olaf is in the lift but before they can do anything the doors close and the group is moving up to the next floor. Olaf is rather miffed to learn that his two associates (who were Justice Strauss’s fellow judges) are now trying to capture him. Just goes to show that if you’re a bad guy you can’t trust anyone.
At the next floor Klaus warns Esme and Carmelita about the fire, while Olaf tries to convince them that there isn’t one. You’d think that even if he had split up with Esme, he’d still want to give her a fighting chance to get out of the burning building. Oh, wait, hold on, it’s Olaf we’re speaking about isn’t it? Of course he’d tell them to keep their blindfolds on and that there wasn’t a fire.
So we continue up towards the roof, passing on the way Mr Poe (who believes they are lying about the fire), their former teachers with Principal Nero, Geraldine Julienne, Charles and Sir, Hugo, Colette and Kevin, some people from the Village of Fowl Devotees, as well as lots of people they don’t recognise. At each floor they hear snippets of conversation from the people they’re passing as well. Some believe the children, some believe Olaf, some believe Justice Strauss.
Meanwhile Snicket speculates on what has happened to all of these people since then, making this chapter take about as long to get through as the ride up to the top of the hotel. It’s worth noting that Snicket talks about these people doing things now, so I’m guessing that people do survive the hotel fire but he does point out that as they travelled by elevator to the roof, the children didn’t know if anyone would get out of the building alive.
As they stepped out of the elevator and walked across the rooftop sunbathing salon, the Baudelaire orphans felt as if their entire lives were like a book, filled with crucial information, that had been set aflame, like the comprehensive history of injustice that was now just ashes in a fire growing more enormous by the second.
From the top of the building they can see smoke billowing out of the windows below them, people do also seem to be moving around down on the ground, which hopefully means people are escaping from the building. Olaf’s disappointed that they couldn’t get the fungus out, but at least the fire will take care of some of them; Strauss on the other hand, thanks the Baudelaires for stopping him from releasing the fungus.
One of the downsides to starting a fire in a building then climbing onto the roof is that it becomes structurally unsound, which is what the group on the roof experience next. So they all head for the boat; Violet starts tying on the drag chute (using our old friend the Devil’s Tongue knot), Klaus reveals that the sugar bowl actually felt straight down into the water, and Sunny says ‘Spatulas as oars’ (remember those things they used to flip the sunbathers on the roof).
For a moment Violet and Klaus hope that their friends will find them at sea, but Sunny puts paid to that idea. She points out the smoke rising into the sky from the hotel. And that’s when they remember Kit Snicket’s words about watching the sky for a signal to cancel the gathering. A great big plume of smoke from a burning hotel will probably do it. Sunny announces it quite sagely ‘The last safe place… is safe no more.’
It kind of hits them that they’ve done some terrible things; Dewey is dead, the hotel is on fire. Even if they did have good intentions or these things were accidents. But there’s no time to dwell on these things. They need to get in the boat and start pushing it off the edge of the roof.
Olaf hops right in but Justice Strauss refuses, begging the children to go with her to the authorities. I suspect that the best thing for her to do right now if she wants to live is to get in the boat because the hotel is unlikely to remain standing much longer. Violet’s been let down too many times anyway, she believes that there will be more villains in the authorities and thinks it’ll be unlikely that anyone will believe them, no matter who is backing them up.
There’s an emotional standoff at the top of the hotel as Strauss begs the children to stay, holding on the boat and everything. Unfortunately the Baudelaires have already made their decision so Sunny bites the judge’s hand to make her let go and just like the the boat slides off the edge of the building.
Luckily for everyone on the boat, Violet’s drag chute works perfectly and instead of splatting on the ground, they’re slowed down until they finally hit the water. At which point Olaf hands the children their spatulas and tells them to start rowing.
And they don’t have much of a choice, now that they’re out at sea with no one but Count Olaf to protect them.
Which is where we’ll leave them.
So then we come to the final picture of the book, showing the boat pitching about in the sea. Olaf is standing proud while the children are in charge of the rowing. In the background we can see the giant plume of smoke from the hotel. I’m not entirely sure which bit of the picture is the clue to the next book, which I remember takes place on an island. Perhaps the sea or the boat is the clue.
Looking at the letter from Snicket at the very end of the book, I think it’s got to be the boat. The letter to the editor is written on a napkin, with a boat logo in the corner:
To My Kind Editor,
The end is night.
With all due respect,
The end is night.
With all due respect,
The End is nigh indeed. We’ll be taking a look at the cover this afternoon!