"In order to spare you any further repulsion, it would be best not to mention any of the unpleasant details of this story, particularly a secret message, a toboggan, a deceitful trap, a swarm of snow gnats, a scheming villain, a troupe of organized youngsters, a covered casserole dish, and a surprising survivor of a terrible fire."

A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS number ten picks up at the point of the last book's cliffhanger. Count Olaf has separated the Baudelaire orphans from each other for the first time in the series, kidnapping the baby Sunny and cutting the tie to Violet and Klaus's caravan so that they are left helplessly tumbling down a mountain. On their way to a secret hideout, Count Olaf and his girlfriend Esmé gloat at having kidnapped Sunny, and their henchmen (some of Count Olaf's former acting troupe, joined by three freaks from the circus they've just left) are tagging along.

The book opens with Violet and Klaus trying to find a way to stop their dangerously hurtling, engineless caravan. Violet's inventing skills get them out of that mess, but they lose the caravan over a cliff after they've rescued some warm clothes and other useful things from it. Unfortunately, they run into a swarm of snow gnats, which drive them into a cave. Inside the cave, they are surprised to see that a group of campers has taken up residence. They are driving the gnats away with a campfire, and they wear fencing masks which keep the gnats out. One of this group happens to be Carmelita Spats, the Baudelaires' old enemy from Prufrock Preparatory back in The Austere Academy.

Meanwhile, Sunny is being badly treated by Olaf, Esmé, and the henchmen. They gloat about their crimes (Esmé adding that crime is very "in" right now), and cart the youngest Baudelaire up to the top of Mount Fraught, where they begin to order her around. For some reason unclear, they totally do not understand her baby talk, but nevertheless think her capable of adult tasks. Olaf insults her with many creative names, such as "dentist's nightmare" and "toothy." Sunny sits secure in the knowledge that her siblings will find her.

The elder two Baudelaires camp out in the cave with this group called the Snow Scouts, who have an idiotic alphabetical pledge that they say over and over. One of the campers, however, starts giving them strange clues (by saying phrases whose first letters spell out "V.F.D."), and so they decide this camper is an ally. After everyone falls asleep, the boy leads them up a secret passage. During their travels up the passage, the author attempts to bore the reader with the description, and urges several times that you should stop reading now, only to finally cut to a "secret" letter to his sister. Lemony Snicket says he is taking a big risk hiding the letter in his book, and says he may have found evidence that will point to Olaf as the arsonist whose crimes are getting pinned on the author. He asks his sister to meet him on Beatrice's birthday in the Hotel Denouement. (Beatrice is the mystery woman to whom all the Series of Unfortunate Events books are dedicated, remember.) He urges her to please get them a room without ugly curtains.

Now we rejoin Sunny, in the clutches of her captors. As she prepares breakfast, the villains glorify bad hygiene and horrible crimes and disgusting habits, and finally they talk about going to burn down the V.F.D. headquarters. Sunny serves her breakfast, and Olaf rejects it meanly and makes his hook-handed henchman catch some salmon instead. While he is gone, two very evil people arrive. (They are so evil that the author will not mention their names, and decides instead to call them "the man with a beard, but no hair" and "the woman with hair, but no beard.") The evil people say they've already burned down V.F.D., and they give Esmé a little souvenir, which the evil man says he thinks is a cigarette, even though when she tries to smoke it (because cigarettes are so "in"), it just smells bad and spews green smoke. Then the evil people present to Olaf a stack of papers called "the Snicket file." This file apparently holds all the facts that could get Olaf and his cronies arrested, and he and his girlfriend go into a tent to read it. As the other henchmen demand that Sunny find a way to cook the salmon, she begins to think of an idea.

The elder two Baudelaires reach the V.F.D. headquarters with their new guide, and they have to break the code on the "Vernacularly Fastened Door," which of course operates on language cues. Once they are in, they see that the whole place has been burned down, much to their surprise. Violet and Klaus, bitterly disappointed to not find the expected "survivor of the fire," call out for their parents, but of course no one answers. The sweatered scout reveals that HE is the survivor of the fire, though not the same fire the Baudelaires were thinking of. He is Quigley Quagmire, the third Quagmire triplet who was presumed dead in his own house fire. He'd been hoping to find his siblings Isadora and Duncan. No such luck.

Quigley and the Baudelaires exchange all the information they know about their linked tragedies. It is revealed that there was a "schism," where the members of V.F.D. split into two factions, and presumably the orphans' parents were in one side with Jacques Snicket while Count Olaf, Esmé, and other evil people (like the eye doctor from The Miserable Mill) were in the other. They agree to join forces to rescue Sunny and find the other two Quagmire triplets. And conveniently, they spot a pillar of green smoke coming from the top of the mountain--it's a Verdant Flammable Device (Esmé's "cigarette"), just like a V.F.D. member would use.

Violet invents a type of climbing shoes and an ice tester from some forks and a candelabra, and she and Quigley decide to climb the frozen waterfall up to the peak to see who is signaling. Klaus stays behind to investigate a mysterious piece of paper that was only partially burned in the fire, trying to solve the mystery of the Verbal Fridge Dialogue.

Violet and Quigley make the climb, and the author allows the two "a moment of privacy" where it is insinuated that they had a romantic encounter. Afterwards, they make it to the top of the slope and they find Sunny. Sunny chooses to stay behind rather than be rescued, because she wants to find out the location of the "last safe place" that everyone keeps mentioning. The villains wish to burn it down, but the children would like to get there and meet the members of V.F.D., one of whom might be a surviving parent of theirs. Violet is reluctant to leave her baby sister there, but Sunny says, "I'm not a baby" (her longest sentence yet), and the two rescuers make their way back down the mountain to see how Klaus is doing.

Klaus has figured out that the items left in the fridge are a sort of code, to point them at the sugar bowl containing a clue. It also turns out Klaus has found out that there is one safe place to go as well. As long as Sunny finds out where that is, they'll be set, but then they realize they don't have a plan to rescue Sunny. They decide that they will capture something that Olaf wants . . . rather, they will capture someONE, his girlfriend Esmé, by luring her with the smell of the "cigarettes" she thinks are so "in." They spend all night digging a pit to trap her in, and begin to wonder if they are villains themselves.

Morning comes and Sunny's False Spring Rolls are a big hit with the villains, and afterwards she sees Olaf and Esmé appearing in horrific fashions (Count Olaf has even washed his face!). Olaf blurts that he can't wait to start recruiting new villain members and to burn down the Hotel Denouement--ta-da, the last safe place! Then Esmé notices the green smoke at the bottom of the slope, and decides to use her toboggan to slide down and find where those cigarettes are. Right before she falls into their pit trap, the children decide that trapping her is wrong, and they conceal their faces with the Snow Scout masks and jump out, telling Esmé not to fall into the trap. They come clean with her and tell her what they were planning, and they end up taking her back up the slope with them to confront Count Olaf. Pretending they are actual V.F.D. members, they find Olaf and say they are there to take Sunny Baudelaire away, and when Olaf taunts them on the grounds that they have no leverage, they reply that they know where the sugar bowl is.

Olaf demands the sugar bowl, of course. The children demand the safe return of Sunny first, and Olaf says he'd rather throw them all off the mountain. Esmé argues that giving up the baby is necessary to get the sugar bowl, and Olaf retorts that keeping the baby prisoner is necessary to get the Baudelaire fortune. They argue back and forth like spoiled children until the man with a beard but no hair interrupts them. Finally, about a billion things happen at once: The Snow Scouts arrive, having been targeted for "recruitment" by Olaf's troupe. In trying to rescue the Scouts from the terrible fate, the Baudelaires and Quigley reveal who they are, and Olaf attempts to threaten them by ordering Sunny thrown off the mountain. Something surprising happens: The two white-faced women who have worked for Olaf all along disobey his orders, saying that they lost a sibling in a mysterious house fire themselves, obviously caused by Olaf for purposes of recruitment. They leave, never to be seen again. (Olaf attempts to throw Sunny off the mountain himself, but finds that the casserole dish she was using for a bed actually now contains an eggplant instead of a young girl.) Sunny rejoins her siblings.

The man with a beard but no hair uses a whistle to give orders to a flock of enslaved eagles: He forces them to draw up a net around the Snow Scouts. (Apparently eagles and lions are aligned with Olaf's side of the V.F.D. schism, while trained reptiles and carrier crows are on the "good" side.) The plan is to burn down these Scouts' homes and acquire their various family inheritances. Olaf's group entreats Carmelita Spats (the only non-captured Snow Scout) to join the group, and she agrees. The Baudelaires and Quigley decide escape is better than trying to face the villainous scum, so they run away on the toboggan. Disaster strikes and the toboggan goes out of control on the melting slope, and Quigley gets swept away by a different current, leaving the Baudelaires hoping to find Hotel Denouement to meet him at the last safe place. The book ends with the siblings pondering more mysteries than they've solved.

The next volume, The Grim Grotto, continues their adventures.

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