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The Miserable Mill: The Fourth in a Series of Unfortunate Events

by Lemony Snicket, Brett Helquist, illus.

The latest misadventure of the Baudelaire orphans, the fourth in what will be a series of 13, begins in a town called Paltryville at the doorstep of their new guardian, a lumber magnate named “Sir.” The situation begins to sour when Sir puts the children to work at the Lucky Smells Lumber Mill, and turns predictably rotten when their old nemesis, Count Olaf, arrives on the scene.
As in the previous Snicket books (the creation of New York-based author Daniel Handler), Olaf angles for custody of the children so that he can steal their inheritance. Here, he disguises himself as a female receptionist and teams up with Dr. Orwell, an evil hypnotist masquerading as an optician. The ocular motif works nicely, given that one of the overarching themes of the series is the blindness of fate. Accordingly, Mr. Poe, the banker who looks after the Baudelaire orphans’ fortune, is purblind, while Olaf, the villain, has a third eye (it’s tattooed on his ankle).
The Lemony Snicket series offers a pastiche of literary conventions, parodying gothic novels, Victorian melodrama, and cautionary tales (the latter category giving rise to comparisons with Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey). Future Snicket scholars might also trace the line of influence back to the absurdist work of Monty Python. The Miserable Mill bears a strong affinity to Python’s The Meaning of Life – particularly to the film’s jaunty theme song about mortality, the randomness of the universe, and the mindless optimism designed to cover it all up.
This book also shares the qualities that have made its forerunners a huge commercial success: the sharp irony, the startlingly dark humour, and the material charm of the small, cloth-bound volumes with their decorated endpapers, rough-cut pages, and illustrations. I found that the narrative meandered a little, but I kept reading for the many quips and images that made me laugh out loud.