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Evil genius: Lemony Snicket, a series of fortunate escapes

Image credit: Eike Schroter/Netflix

With a brilliance belying her tender years, inventor and technologist Violet Baudelaire is one of the greatest heroines in fiction and living proof that, if you really want to escape from the clutches of the world’s most evil genius, all you really need is an engineering brain.

With its entire narrative unashamedly dedicated to the ‘downfall of the Evil Genius’ trope, ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ is arguably one of the best noir franchises for kids of any age ever to appear in print or on screen. The plot is simple. Three orphan siblings – the Baudelaires – tumble from cliff-hanger to cliff-hanger in their hair-raising efforts to outwit the machinations of the world’s most evil person, their ‘guardian’ Count Olaf.

‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ captured the public’s attention in 1999 when the first instalment of 13 weird novels for young adults – called appropriately enough ‘The Bad Beginning’ – appeared by the unknown author Lemony Snicket (a nom de plume of American writer Daniel Handler), reintroducing, in spectacular fashion, the archetype of the evil genius.

After an aborted attempt to film the series (it was cancelled after the first movie), the franchise got a reboot in the form of a block-busting 25-episode Netflix Original. Starring Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf, the dry, gothic comedy was welcomed with universal critical acclaim, absurdly good viewing figures and a spin-out video game.

Funny and dark, with twists and turns by the bucketful, the plot revolves around the Baudelaires’ repeated narrow escapes from Count Olaf. These invariably come from the fertile inventor’s brain of middle sibling, Violet, whose uncanny knack of inventing contraptions out of thin air makes her one of the first truly modern fictional women engineers. Violet Baudelaire is a role model to us all. Here are her three greatest escapes.

The grappling hook

The problem

In ‘The Bad Beginning’, scheming to get his hands on the Baudelaire orphans’ immense inheritance, the evil Count Olaf has decided that his best course of action is to marry the 12-year-old middle sibling Violet. In order to ‘persuade’ the appalled Violet into agreeing, Olaf kidnaps her younger sibling, baby Sunny, imprisons her in a bird cage and suspends her 30ft in the air from a lonely stone tower. “Let her go,” says Violet to Olaf, before realising that if the count literally does as she asks, then her beloved sister will plummet to her death.

The solution

Rescue. To do this, first Violet assesses her resources and makes a 30ft rope out of curtains and blankets, to which she can attach the ‘rescuing device’. Commandeering a curtain rod, she breaks it in two with a rock, bends the pieces into sharp angles, and connects them with a length of picture wire from the back of a painting to create a ‘large metal spider’. Using a knot called the ‘Devil’s Tongue’, she fixes the rope to the spider. “What she had made was called a grappling hook,” says Snicket, with which Violet climbs the tower.

“To those that hadn’t been around Violet long, nothing would have seemed unusual, but those who knew her well knew that when she tied her hair up in a ribbon to keep it out of her eyes, it meant that the gears and levers of her inventing brain were whirring at top speed.”

The lockpick

The problem

In ‘The Reptile Room’ the Baudelaires are packed off to stay with their snake-collecting explorer uncle who is planning an expedition to Peru. Following the disappearance of his assistant Gustav, replacement Stefano (Count Olaf in disguise) takes the reins, with dastardly plans to capture the children and their vast fortune. To persuade their financial manager – the ineffective Mr Poe – that Stefano is Count Olaf, the kids must expose his evil plot by providing vital evidence hidden in Stefano’s suitcase, protected by a shiny silver padlock.

The solution

Invent a lockpicking device. Always inventing, Violet has fastened her engineering drawings – which she studies by the light of a ‘floorlamp’ – to the wall of her bedroom in Uncle Monty’s house with ‘thumbtacks’ (or drawing pins). She dismantles the lamp’s electric plug and purloins the two metal pins (it’s an American plug), poking and prodding until one becomes hooked around the other. In a manufacturing process that Lemony Snicket leaves vague, Violet combines the two pieces of metal with one of the thumbtacks to produce a lockpick.   

“She took a good look around for anything that might help her. There wasn’t much in the way of inventing materials. Violet longed for a good room in which to invent things, filled with wires and gears and all the necessary equipment to invent really top-notch devices.”

The stapling device

The problem

The saga continues with the Baudelaire orphans sent to ‘The Austere Academy’, where one of the teachers is violin-playing Coach Genghis, or Count Olaf in disguise. Genghis forces the two older siblings to run laps of the track for nine days in a programme called S.O.R.E (Special Orphan Running Exercises). Exhausted, they run the risk of failing their exams, which they must pass to avoid being home-schooled by Genghis and falling into mortal danger. Meanwhile, baby Sunny must staple a stack of papers together without any staples.

The solution

Invent a staple-making device. Luckily for Violet, she already has some metal rods, which provide the raw material. The issue is how to bend the rods into shape. First, she has to cut them to length, which is achieved by getting one of the crabs that lives in the Orphan Shack to slice at the rods with its pincers. The crab is encouraged to do this by means of goading with a toe-shaped potato. Violet makes a profile-mould out of a compound of spinach and a fork, before hammering the cut lengths into shape with a pair of tap-shoes.

“I can’t imagine how you’re going to make staples,” Klaus said, “with only a fork, a few teaspoons of creamed spinach, and a small potato. I hope your inventing skills haven’t been dulled by a lack of sleep.”

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