|“||There was a town, and there was a librarian, and there was a fire. While I was in town I was hired to investigate this fire, and I thought the librarian could help me bring the villain to justice. I was almost thirteen and I was wrong. I was wrong about all of it. I should have asked the question 'Why would someone destroy one building when they really wanted to destroy another?' Instead, I asked the wrong questions- four wrong questions, more or less. This is the account of the third.||”|
Is Lemony Snicket a detective or a smoke detector? Do you smell smoke? Young apprentice Lemony Snicket is investigating a case of arson but soon finds himself enveloped in the ever-increasing mystery that haunts the town of Stain'd-by-the-Sea. Who is setting the fires? What secrets are hidden in the Department of Education? Why are so many schoolchildren in danger? Is it all the work of the notorious villain Hangfire? How could you even ask that? What kind of education have you had?
Maybe you should be in school?
S. Theodora Markson and her apprentice Lemony Snicket are hired to investigate a case of arson. Sharon Haines, an employee of the Department of Education informs Snicket of the fire, and becomes friends with Theodora. Sharon's son, Kellar, acts suspiciously around Lemony. There is a witness to the arson, but when they go to visit his house, they discover it has also been burned down. Dashiell Qwerty, the town's librarian, is arrested for burning down the buildings, although Snicket highly doubts it was Qwerty that committed the crimes. It is revealed that Qwerty is arrested after Theodora and Sharon inform the Officers Mitchum that he is guilty.
Stain'd Secondary School is then burned down, and all the schoolchildren are moved to the previously disused Wade Academy. Two people from the Department of Truancy come to take Snicket's friends (Jake Hix, Cleo Knight and Moxie Mallahan) plus Kellar Haines to the boarding school, although Snicket is not taken. The man destroys Moxie's typewriter. Lemony realizes that the two people were Sharon and Hangfire.
When Lemony returns to The Lost Arms he finds Theodora beaten. She reveals that Sharon attacked her. Lemony finds Pip and Squeak hiding from the Department of Truancy. He goes to the school to investigate and is knocked unconscious by Stew Mitchum; he wakes up in Ellington Feint's room in the school. She pretends to be a student called Filene N. Gottlin. Lemony and Ellington meet with Moxie, Jake, Cleo, Kellar and Ornette Lost (Prosper Lost's daughter) in the school library, though all the books are blank. It is revealed by Kellar that he and his mother aided Hangfire in order to save his sister, Lizzie. Snicket comes up with a fragmentary plot and his friends all help to carry it out. Stew Mitchum and Hangfire warn Snicket that they will kill him if necessary and then beat him up.
Hangfire, the villain behind the arsons, attempts to mislead Snicket into thinking Dicey's Department Store is being burned down, but Snicket works out that he is planning to burn down the library. He removes the books before Hangfire can burn it down, although the building ends up being saved by the recently installed sprinkler system. Stew confronts Lemony and Ellington at the library, leading to Ellington being arrested for the destruction of the books. Lemony replaced the full books with the empty ones found at the school library. He then hides the full books at Black Cat Coffee. A younger Josephine Anwhistle then talks to Lemony about how his sister, Kit, was arrested.
- Lemony Snicket
- Moxie Mallahan
- Cleo Knight
- Jake Hix
- S. Theodora Markson
- Pecuchet "Pip" Bellerophon
- Bouvard "Squeak" Bellerophon
- Ellington Feint
- Stew Mitchum
- Harvey Mitchum
- Mimi Mitchum
- Dashiell Qwerty
- Prosper Lost
- Hungry Hix
- Polly Partial
- Kit Snicket
- Mr. Mallahan & Ms. Mallahan
- Mr. Bellerophon
- Zada and Zora
- Doretta & Ignatius Knight
- Dr. Flammarion
- Lizzie Haines
- Dame Sally Murphy
- Jacques Snicket
- Bertrand Baudelaire
- Count Olaf
- Gifford & Ghede
- Edward (V.F.D. member)
Snicket and his associates reference several books, though usually not by name. They are supposed to be:
- The Red Pony by John Steinbeck: In Chapter Two, Lemony picks up a book at the Department of Education about a boy, Jody, who received a pony who got sick.
- James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl: In Chapter Three, Lemony references a book about a boy who finds a strange man with a sack of magic crystals.
- A Separate Peace by John Knowles: In Chapter Three, Jake references a book where two schoolchildren are friends, and then one of them tricks the other into falling from a tree.
- The Children's Hour, a play by Lillian Hellman: After Jake tells Lemony about A Separate Peace, Lemony recommends this by name.
- The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame: Referenced by name first in Chapter Six, then later throughout the book as a password for the Association of Associates.
- Old Yeller by Fred Gipson: Referenced by name in Chapter Six.
- A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle: In Chapter Seven, Lemony tips this book to Pip and Squeak, describing its famous opening before going into detail on the plot.
- Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter: In Chapter Seven, Lemony thinks about this story and its main character.
- "What I Believe" by E.M. Forster: Lemony paraphrases in Chapter Eight.
- Murder on the Orient Express and Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie: In Chapter Eleven, Lemony asks the Bellerophons if they've ever read a book about a murder on the train, in order to explain fragmentary plots to them, and Pip says they prefer the one about the girl who gets murdered while bobbing for apples.
- At the start of the book there is a memo from Lemony Snicket to Eratosthenes, cc'd to VFDhq. The real world Eratosthenes was a 3rd century BC Greek mathematician, geographer, poet, astronomer, and music theorist who was also the chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria.