Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Sally Lockhart mysteries

Author: Philip Pullman
Laurel Leaf Books
Ages 12 and above


Few eras have excited the imagination like Victorian England. There is something about the atmosphere - the grimy, soot -laden air of the Industrial Revolution, the cobbled streets with horse drawn carriages, gaslamps illuminating dark, rain washed streets - that seems to inspire the macabre. After all, this is the setting for literary masterpieces as diverse as the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, the books of Charles Dickens, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and a hundred morbid conspiracy theories revolving around Jack the Ripper.

Philip Pullman, acclaimed author of that tremendous trilogy, His Dark Materials, sets his Sally Lockhart books in Victorian London. The character (and the first book in the series) evolved out of a play he wrote for a school concert production. This book, 'The Ruby in the Smoke' led to two direct sequels - 'The Shadow in the North' and 'The Tiger in the Well'- and a fourth book, 'The Tin Princess', based on some of the characters from the earlier books.


'The Ruby in the Smoke' introduces Sally as a sixteen year old, newly orphaned and determined to lead her life on her own terms. Her father has died under mysterious circumstances, and all she has is a strange hand scrawled note warning her against something called the Seven Blessings. Before she knows it, she finds herself embroiled in the opium trade and fighting for her life, with the help of a ragtag group of people that she befriends . She triumphs, of course.


With 'The Shadow in the North' and 'The Tiger in the Well', we watch her come into her own as a successful businesswoman, financial consultant, mother - and, of course, amateur detective. Sally only plays a cameo in 'The Tin Princess, which takes a few characters from the earlier books and weaves a web of political intrigue and romance around them.


Pullman draws his readers into the political and social milieu of the time, describing their inequities, especially with regard to women and minority communities. Victorian England was a tough place for women, offering them little opportunity for independence. They were limited to a few menial jobs, and had little control over their property or children once they were married. In such an environment, Sally Lockhart displays considerable spirit in her choices, and indomitable courage in her various quests to catch criminals.

Pullman is also a master at building intricate plots, and each book is a wonderful exercise in watching seemingly disparate events and clues converge for an exciting (and usually violent) climax. Each of the books also gives us an insight into other facets of Victorian England - the development of an exciting new technology called photography, for instance; the public fascination with the paranormal; or the intolerance meted out to Russian Jewish refugees fleeing oppression in their homeland. But best of all, he crafts tough female characters,that take on a prejudiced establishment and eventually emerge triumphant.

A series I would recommend to all older kids, for its well-plotted mysteries,historical insight and some truly memorable characters.

Image source

10 comments:

sathish said...

I love the way you have written the review.

I read his Dark Materials. Kept running in my head for a long time.He crafted a pretty strong female character in that one too.

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utbtkids said...

Pullman is in my list. Thanks WJ.

ChoxBox said...

WJ, this sounds good, thanks for the reco. Will keep an eye out for it. And hey great review, as usual.

@utbt: To start off with, the Firework Maker’s Daughter will be good.

sandhya said...

Have seen these books, WJ, but not really gone through them. In fact, haven't encountered much of Philip Pullman in our reading.

We did start off with 'Scarecrow and his servant', Chox, but I think I need to read it to A in the beginning, as she didn't really take to it.

Will keep it in mind for myself in the meantime. And I agree that Victorian England did have a wonderful 'atmosphere' for the kind of literary works placed during the period.

Meera Sriram said...

Something about the review has already transported me to Victorian England :) Enjoying the Crocus for myself sometimes. Like here, thanks WJ!

utbtkids said...

@Chox: *Furtively taking notes*

artnavy said...

Will read this for myself - I love mystery and I like it even better when the female character is a strong one

Praba said...

I love how both your picks have that perfect blend of history and mystery. The first para instantly transported me to the Victorian England. I also think in some ways the victorian era marked the beginning of the whole children's book "industry" with lots of authors in english literature writing just for children.

ranjani.sathish said...

Truly love books with a strong female character, who rebels against the established norms ! Thanks for the review WJ..very well written.

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