Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In this sixth book in A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Baudelaire orphans—Violet, Klaus, and Sunny—arrive at a new home under the care of new guardians.
Mr. Poe tells the Baudelaire children not to be nervous as he takes them to their new home on Dark Avenue to live with the Squalors in a penthouse apartment. The ever-incompetent Mr. Poe assures the children that they do not need to worry about either Count Olaf or the missing Quagmire triplets.
Mr. Poe's false reassurances, the literal grim darkness of Dark Avenue, and the children being left to climb—or in the case of Sunny, crawl—the sixty-six stories of dark staircases to the penthouse apartment by themselves because elevators are "out" of fashion casts an aura of foreboding over their arrival at their new home. However, they are greeted with kindness by Jerome Squalor, a wealthy man who was once a friend of their mother.
His wife, Esmé Squalor, is another story. A shallow, fashion-obsessed woman, she has only allowed him to adopt the Baudelaire children because orphans are "in," leaving them to wonder what will happen to them when orphans are "out."
The children learn that their new home is a mix of good and bad. Jerome takes them around the city to amuse them, but at home they are often left by themselves, in part because Esmé is often out and in part because the penthouse is so large that they usually can't find Jerome. But more than that, they are oppressed by worry about what happened to the missing Quagmire triplets.
The Quagmire triplets, Duncan and Isadora, are actually a twosome, as their triplet brother, Quigley, is missing and presumed dead. The triplets befriended the Baudelaire orphans and helped save them at the Austere Academy in the previous book, and the two sets of children—who are decent, intelligent, sensitive, and polite—share a deep bond.
Esmé is bored with the children's worry about the Quagmires but obsessed with an "in" auction she organizes every year. They find out that she is money-hungry, as she is delighted to keep all the auction proceeds for herself, even after Jerome urges her to give them to charity. Worse, despite Mr. Poe's assurances, Count Olaf shows up to go to dinner with them at the Salmonella Cafe, disguised as the auctioneer Gunther. Adding to their anxieties, Jerome does not believe it when they tell him Gunther is Count Olaf. He even scolds them for their suspicions.
The morning after the dinner, the children search the enormous apartment, looking for Count Olaf. They do not find him. Then Klaus realizes that one of two elevators to their penthouses must be ersatz (fake), as the other apartments only have one elevator. Olaf, they decide, must be hiding in the ersatz elevator.
The children realize that the ersatz elevator is simply a dark, empty shaft. They decide to go down it but, not finding any ropes in the apartment, concoct an ersatz rope from neckties, extension cords, and curtain pulls. Although they are frightened to go down the dark shaft, the Baudelaire orphans courageously do so and find Duncan and Isadora Quaqmire at the bottom in a rusty cage.
The two caged children are so disoriented that they at first believe they are dreaming or hallucinating when they see the Baudelaires. In turn, the Baudelaires are shocked by the appearance of the triplets, who are dirty, hungry, ragged, frightened, and haunted-looking, as if they are carrying ghosts around inside them. The Baudelaires only recognize the Quagmires from the notebooks the triplets always carry.
The Quagmires inform the...
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Baudelaires that Count Olaf is plotting to hide them on a deserted island until they come of age, at which point he plans to steal their fortune in sapphires. Olaf will transport the Quagmires by hiding them in one of the lots in the upcoming auction, then having one of his associates buy the lot. They don't know, however, what lot they will be in.
The Baudelaires decide they will return with tools to free the triplets. Back in the penthouse, Violet invents welding tools to cut through the bars of the cage, but when the children return down the elevator shaft, they find the Quagmires are gone.
Returning to the penthouse, the children tell Esmé what is going on and discover that lot #50 from the auction must be the one hiding the Quagmires, as it is labeled "VFD"—the initials of Count Olaf's secret society. The children do not yet know that Olaf is working with Esmé, who is the Quagmires' guardian. When Esmé finds out how much the children know, she pushes them down the ersatz elevator shaft.
They think they are going to die, but someone has stretched a rope net across the shaft that breaks their fall. They find out from Esmé, who talks to them from above, that she is plotting with Count Olaf to steal both their fortune and the Quagmires'.
Esmé believes them trapped, but Sunny uses her teeth to climb to the top of the elevator shaft and find the ersatz rope. The children decide to climb down rather than up. At the bottom, they crawl past the empty cage and through a dark corridor. They pick up the cooled welding torches on the way and, when they come to a dead end in the corridor, are able to use the torches as crowbars to force open a trapdoor overhead. When the step out, they find they are in the ashy ruins of the burned Baudelaire mansion.
But the children can't linger, as they must hurry to the auction at Veblen Hall. They arrive as Olaf, disguised as Gunther, is auctioning lot #46. They run into Jerome and ask him to buy them lot #50 as gift. He agrees. The children then meet with Mr. Poe, who is bidding on lot #48, a giant red herring. He loses to the doorman.
Lot #50 looks like it holds the Quagmires. It is large, has air holes, and is marked VFD. But after the children buy it, they realize they have been tricked: it holds doilies, not the triplets. When the children try to explain what they know, Esmé says she no longer wants them, and the oily "Gunther" says he would be glad to adopt them. At this point, however, Gunther slips on the doilies, losing his boots and monocle. He is not wearing socks, so his tattoo shows, exposing him as Count Olaf.
The count runs off with Esmé, chased by the crowd. The children also discover that the doorman of the apartment on Dark Avenue who bought the red herring is Olaf's sidekick, the hook-handed man.
As Esmé and Olaf escape in a truck, the children learn that the Quagmires are inside the red herring. When they tell Jerome of their determination to rescue the triplets, he leaves immediately, saying he lacks their courage. Once again abandoned, the Baudelaires set out to find their Quagmire friends.