Who knows when some slight shock, disturbing the delicate balance between social order and thirsty aspiration, shall send the sky-scrapers in our cities toppling? — Richard Wright, Native Son
The travails of the Baudelaire orphans continue in The Penultimate Peril, and if anything, get darker. The book takes place in the Hotel Denouement, where the children take on the role of concierges to discover where the volunteers (good members) of the VFD (Volunteer Fire Department) have hidden a mysterious item (a sugar bowl) from the villains of the VFD. The VFD split into volunteers and villains some time ago, and the struggle between them has risen in ferocity. The villains leave a wake of destruction, crimes, and devastating fires behind them, which the volunteers try to thwart and overcome them.
The book’s central question revolves around who is noble and who is villainous, and the shades of grey in between. For several books the orphans have struggled with the actions they have had to take to escape the clutches of their enemies, including their main nemesis, Count Olaf. While their intentions are noble–helping themselves and others escape from various villains–they have had to do things that are not. In the book, one of the characters talks to the children about being “noble enough.” As Klaus Baudelaire says, “We want to be noble, but we’ve had to be treacherous.” His siblings remind him that the things they have been done have been accidents or in service of a greater good, such as saving their own or others’ lives. But they can’t completely escape the pain of knowing that their nobility does not cancel out that at times they have hurt others.
Like all the books, mystery after mystery piles up like a Jenga tower. A few mysteries are cleared up, but many mysteries remain. I found this book slower than the others; it wasn’t until I was about half-way through that things started to pick up. Interestingly, the nefarious Count Olaf was a welcome break in the depressing story. There are villains worse than him in this book, and in contrast Olaf is entertaining and slightly more human, even though he is as dastardly as ever. He is definitely not a good guy, but he’s a welcome diversion from some of the heaviness. He’s a cartoonish character with malign intent, a criminal bungler that brings some comic relief.
With only one book left in the series, I hope all the mysteries will be satisfactorily solved. Despite the promised unfortunate events, I still hold onto the hope that the Baudelaire orphans will be safe and happy in the end, even if it’s a more complicated happy than when their parents were alive.