Welcome yet again to your monthly (more or less; I’m not perfect) dose of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, in the form of book the second, The Reptile Room. Wherein we’ll uncover a murder, learn about loss (again, still, some more), get introduced to someone fun and continue on this dark trek of being emotionally screwed up. Spoilers to follow…
First, a quick recap. In The Bad Beginning, the three Baudelaire children (in order by age: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny) are suddenly and unexpectedly made the Baudelaire orphans when their parents and home perish in a fire. They’re sent to live with the odious Count Olaf, who only has eyes on their fortune. To prove his general odiousness, he first hits Klaus in the face, then imprisons infant Sunny in a birdcage suspended outside a tower window, then very nearly succeeds in marrying 14-year-old Violet to earn spousal rights to her fortune (he does not succeed, thank God).
Next up on their whirlwind tour of Crappy Living Situations, is their least crappy residence, with their cousin Dr. Montgomery Montgomery, a herpetologist, and his titular Reptile Room. Uncle Monty, as he likes to be known, is probably the least incompetent of all of the Baudelaire guardians, as he genuinely cares about the children. He assigns them all reptile-related tasks, suiting their specific desires (Violet likes mechanics and inventing, Klaus likes reading and research, and Sunny likes biting), and prepares them to go on a trip to Peru. Because everyone knows the very first thing you do when you suddenly get foster parentage of three kids is to take them off to Peru to hunt snakes in the jungle.
Tragedy of course strikes, and Mr. Snicket does his best to prepare us for it well in advance, hinting not-too-subtly about Monty’s imminent demise (while trying to teach us lessons about dramatic irony). Count Olaf shows up to Monty’s house in disguise as Stephano, a herpetological assistant Uncle Monty hired at the last minute to replace his mysteriously disappeared assistant Gustav. My memories of this series certainly seem to recollect Count Olaf as an only periodically successful villain, creepy but not particularly effective, and therefore not particularly menacing. It’s hard to have too much fear in someone who’s continually outwitted by pre-teens, even if they are exceptionally intelligent pre-teens. (Jim Carrey’s performance as Olaf, while particularly delightful, probably also contributes to this idea.) But Olaf, here as Stephano, is creepy as all get-out, and particularly menacing. He is a man repeatedly defeated by his own hubris, but he’s also a man who lurks in a hallway late at night, spinning an enormous, jagged knife to keep children in their bedrooms. There’s also this disturbing bit of business: “Over dinner, Stephano told funny stories and praised Monty’s scientific work, and Uncle Monty was so flattered he didn’t even think to guess that Stephano was holding a knife under the table, rubbing the blade gently against Violet’s knee for the entire meal.” That’s some SVU-level stuff, there, guys.
Long story short: Uncle Monty, who insists everyone call him Uncle Monty, is a jolly, weird little dude who loves snakes and pranks, and who treats the orphans well, baking them cakes and taking them to the movies. As you can guess, he is not long for this world. Olaf murders him by injecting him with one of the many venom samples Monty has locked away, attempting to make it look like a deadly snake has escaped and bitten Monty (and then locked itself back in its cage, obviously). Stephano/Olaf is aiming to get the orphans to Peru with him, presumably so he can do whatever he want to them in the safety of international waters. (Also, highly renowned herpetologist Montgomery Montgomery obviously has enough money to take four virtual strangers to Peru with him; why is he taking everyone there on a boat?) To help deter the well-meaning but ultimately useless Mr. Poe (local banker and manager of the Baudelaires’ affairs), who shows up at precisely the right moment, he also has his hook-handed assistant put on fake hands (fake hands!) and pose as a medical examiner to corroborate the story. Naturally, the two villains are outsmarted by the researching skills and deductive reasoning of the Baudelaires, and Olaf and his hook-handed friend flee into the night. Or the day. One of those.
In a lot of ways, these events are more tragic than that of The Bad Beginning. The Baudelaires die in a sad accident, whereas Monty is murdered. Worse yet, the orphans knew from the moment Stephano walked in the door that he wasn’t who he said he was, and that it was very likely he’d commit terrible crimes, so they are stuck with the everlasting guilt of having not stopped him when they had the chance (regardless of whether or not there was anything they actually could have done). There is, I’ve said before and I’ll say again, a prevalent theme of how children often feel helpless when the adults around them refuse to listen. There is an emphasis at self-sufficiently at an early age. But in any case, Count Olaf has upped his game from grossness and questionable legality to out-and-out murder (I don’t think I need to tell you that he also murdered Gustav, and confessed it with pride).
But as we progress, we also get a solid glimpse at the emerging lyrical beauty of Snicket’s writing, which manages to both be elegant, yet keeps its target audience in mind and has a certain simplicity to it. :
“It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.”
When we leave the Baudelaires, they are watching all of their new, slithery friends from the Reptile Room being packed up and carted off to parts unknown. Which is appropriate, as the Baudelaires themselves are destined for parts unknown. Or not so unknown, because in Snicket’s attempts to teach us dramatic irony, I at least know that their next destination is with their Aunt Josephine in the upcoming The Wide Window. Shall we?