The Short Version: Young Lemony Snicket knows the endgame approaches. The villainous Hangfire has the people of Stain’d-by-the-Sea fleeing the town on a late night train – and so Snicket defies his superiors yet again to board the train and hope to thwart the villainy once and for all. But nothing is quite as it seemed…
The Review: A train adventure! I love few things more than a good train adventure. Perhaps it was reading Murder on the Orient Express at a tremendously impressionable age or perhaps just my love of trains themselves (again instilled at an impressionable age, thanks Dad), but there is something Romantic and thrilling about the circumstances of being stuck on a train and having a mystery to solve.
Snicket starts this final installment of his quartet right on the heels of “Shouldn’t You Be in School?” and the pace never lets up: this book flies in a way that I don’t think any previous Snicket installment has flown. And he makes it very clear from that same outset that the stakes are higher now, even though we don’t quite know why. For example, the mysterious adult couple who attempted to poison Snicket at the beginning of “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” appear in the opening image (by the great Seth) and chapter – but how can they be there? What’s going on? We never really get to know, although I’ll come to that in a minute. It’s enough that we get a sense of bigger things happening – and the relentless forward motion of the train (once Snicket gets on it, in a pulse-pounding sequence that’s definitely pushing the boundaries of what my teachers would’ve called ‘acceptable’ for the book’s intended age group [we all would’ve read it against their wishes anyway, because that’s what readers do – but I digress]) keeps the action moving so fast that both the reader and Snicket can’t quite stop to put it all together.
And things get dark here. (I’m going to tiptoe around the edge of some SPOILERS now, so please be forewarned if you haven’t read the book yet.) The death of a major supporting character comes as a shock to everyone, reader and other characters, and the stakes are revealed to be suddenly incredibly high. There might not be any blood to speak of, but an adult reader will picture the scene differently from how a child might – and it’s hard not to see this as one of the most somber, mortal moments of Snicket’s oeuvre.
Just as the book demands the reader, no matter what age, to face the concept of mortality – and of people dying too soon – it also demands that they consider the philosophical quandaries inherent in the words “right” and “wrong”. Hangfire is a villain, because of the terrible things he’s done (regardless of why) – but is Ellington? And, in the final reveals, do those distinctions get even blurrier? Is it better to lie, to keep secrets in order to do the “right” thing… or is it better to tell people the truth in pursuit of the same ends? We see the earliest moments of the schism in V.F.D. here, as the adults argue about Snicket. They mention the other young people and the names are all too familiar: Kit, Beatrice, Olaf… The children are doing what they’re told but the dissention in the ranks is clear above them. While we still don’t know how this Snicket becomes the Snicket who researches the Baudelaire orphans, we’ve now got points on a timeline – and some pivotal understanding that we didn’t have before.
If this series has been about the wrong questions, I think the ending of this book asks what could be considered one of the right questions: “what do you do when you realize that what you thought was right might in fact be wrong?” That, more than anything else, is an immense question to ask anybody at any age – and Snicket/Handler’s assuredness in asking it of his readers, no matter their age, is a testament to not only his skill as a writer but his disposition and belief in his audience. Without going any closer to any spoilers, the end of this book is jaw-dropping, both from an action/plot perspective and from a character/psychological perspective. Snicket the character is placed into positions where he does what he thinks is right, even as he has doubts – and those doubts are then confirmed, to some extent. It’s an audacious move and the ending of this book is not a happy one.
But, then, the endings of most things are not happy. The best we can hope for, most times, is that we are alive and able to carry forward with the complexities of life. Seth’s final images bang that message home, tying in beautifully to Snicket’s prose – and I find myself just as in awe as I was when I was a young man reading A Series of Unfortunate Events. Nobody writes quite like Lemony Snicket, not even Daniel Handler. Here’s hoping there are more horrible tales he doesn’t want us to read but delivers anyway.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. A terrific conclusion to a series that got off to a bit of a rocky start. The train setting keeps the plot flying forward and everybody from the series gets a moment to appear for a final bow throughout – but Snicket doesn’t answer all the questions. He gives loyal readers a few tidbits and certainly helps sketch out some broader reaches of the world… but so much is left to the imagination that you can’t help but demand more. Meanwhile, he sneaks in some incredibly complex life lessons for his readers young and old and ends the book with such skillful tension and emotion that I could hear my heart pounding in my ears long after I closed the book for good. Top-notch work from a master of storytelling.