While stranded in Illinois with only one book that I don’t much feel like reading, I snagged Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart books from my little sister’s room and read them in a few days. The adventures of an atypical Victorian heroine in a gritty version of London were extremely entertaining.
The Ruby in the Smoke
The first book in the series begins with the sentence “Her name was Sally Lockhart; and within fifteen minutes, she was going to kill a man.” I defy anyone not to be curious about Sally after that opening line. Sally’s father has just died and her unconventional upbringing has left her to be remarkably intelligent when dealing with accounting or target shooting, and less informed about dealing with people. When Sally visits her father’s office and utters the phrase “The Seven Blessings” to one of her father’s business associates, he is so frightened that he falls over and dies. Sally is soon caught up in a mystery involving the shipping trade, a mysterious Ruby, and a not inconsiderable amount of opium. Sally leaves her detestable guardian and attempts to strike out on her own. She’s aided by the Garlands, a brother and sister with an unconventional lifestyle who run a photography business. A clerk named Jim with an addiction to penny dreadfulls is also along for the adventure. A horrible woman named Mrs Holland who runs her own criminal empire in the slums of London is after a ruby that may actually be Sally’s legacy. Mrs Holland’s abused servant girl Adelaide ends up helping Sally unravel the mystery of her father’s death. Not knowing how to act like a typical girl leaves Sally to come into her own without the constraints of the society she lives in.
Shadow In the North
One of the things I like about these books is that they reflect happenings in history. While the first book focused on the opium trade, the second has spiritualism and mysticism as a backdrop. A few years after the events in The Ruby in the Smoke, Sally has become a financial consultant. Her friend Fred Garland is now a private detective, and the photography business has been invigorated by Sally’s capital and business sense. Fred often asks Sally to marry him, and she always refuses, because she doesn’t want to give up her independence. One of Sally’s clients loses money in an investment in a shipping company, and Sally senses a strange pattern when she looks at the way the business failed. While Sally investigates shipping issues, Fred and Jim are caught up in a case involving a charismatic and cowardly magician. An evil businessman plans to build an ultimate weapon, and the trio of friends are determined to stop it.
The Tiger in the Well
Sally lives on her own with her young daughter Harriett. Someone has been building a trap for Sally for years, and the day that she’s served with divorce papers and a custody claim from a non-existent husband turns into a psychologically harrowing nightmare as Sally tries to discover who her shadowy enemy is. The presence of a faux husband could cause all of Sally’s assets as well as her daughter to be taken from her, and the court system does not favor unmarried mothers. Sally goes on the run with Harriett and finds an unexpected ally in the form of Dan Goldberg, a socialist Jew and political leader. The plight of immigrants and the lower classes in London is clearly portrayed as Sally seeks refuge in neighborhoods that she’s never had to travel before. Sally dodges the police by hiding with her daughter in tea shops and boarding houses, and gradually finds out that a man the Jews call the Tzaddik is behind the attempt to take her daughter away. Sally does some undercover detective work of her own in order to find out the identity of her enemy.
The Tin Princess
The fourth book in the series focuses on some of the supporting characters, as Sally is happily married to Dan Goldberg at the start of this novel. Jim continues with his detective work and literary ambitions, penning thrilling plays and sending them off to theaters only to collect rejection slips. Adelaide who disappeared into the slums of London after the first novel, and when she turns up in the Tin Princess she’s married to a prince from the tiny European country of Razkavia. Unfortunately Adelaide is ill-equipped for princessing, as she is illiterate and doesn’t speak German. A young tutor named Becky visits the new princess, but a bomb goes off outside the house as they conclude their lesson. Jim loiters outside, as he’s been searching for Adelaide for years, and he quickly takes charge of the bombing aftermath, earning the friendship of Adelaide’s husband Prince Rudolf. Becky, Jim, and Adelaide travel to Razkavia together, determined to detect the people behind a recent outbreak of royal assassinations that lead to Adelaide assuming the throne after her husband is killed. Adelaide’s determination to do right by her suddenly adopted country is admirable. There’s bonus knitting content in this volume, as Jim unravels a sweater that Sally knit for him in order to create some improvised weapons.
I think of the series, the first book is one of the strongest and strangest just due to the presence of opium induced visions. The second book was a little muddled, as I was a little taken aback by Fred’s sudden transformation into detective. The third book was the most emotionally gripping, and it was nice to see some of the supporting characters featured in the fourth book. Overall, the Saly Lockhart books are extremely entertaining and well worth reading if you enjoy historical fiction and mysteries.