The Ruby in the Smoke, Classic Young Adult Historical Thriller

After years of being urged to do so, I’ve just finally read Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke.  It was originally published in 1985 and is the first of the Sally Lockhart Mysteries quartet.  Let me start by saying that you’ve got to read it.  And, there’s a reason why books like these are classics.

It’s 1872 in London and sixteen-year-old Sally Lockhart, our protagonist, has fairly recently lost her father, a shipping agent, to drowning in the Far East.  Although briefly forced to live with a distasteful aunt and prevented from getting at some of her inheritance, Sally has a head for financial matters and devises a plan to make the most of her immediate family’s investments.  Sally is intelligent, practical, conscientious, a bit shy and a tad self-conscious about the untraditional education she received from her father, which did not include classic literature.

One day Sally receives a mysterious letter from Singapore which warns her to “beware of the seven blessings”.  When she mentions this odd message to her father’s company’s secretary, the man has a heart attack and dies.  It is here that she meets Jim, a smart and straightforward boy a few years younger than Sally who takes it upon himself to help solve the mystery surrounding the letter.

Sally shortly receives a note from a Mr. Marchbanks asking her to come see him.  When she does, this frightened man warns her of the presence on his property of Mrs. Holland -- one of the novel’s principal baddies –  and hurriedly gives Sally a diary to help her figure everything out.  Although all but a page or two of this diary is shortly stolen from Sally, she manages to escape Mrs. Holland’s pursuit of her by hiding out in the tent of Frederick Garland, a talented young photographer.  The two strike up a friendship and Sally eventually moves in with Frederick and his sister, repaying them by using her business acumen to revive their photography business. 

This is just the beginning of a novel filled with suspense and adventure, all centered around the priceless gem mentioned in the title and Sally’s father.   Characterization is rich and varied and there is honest self-reflection on the part of Sally.  The Ruby in the Smoke is a true page-turner with a capable but real heroine who does feel fear but decides to take thoughtful action.  I recommend this novel for middle schoolers, teens and adults.

I actually “read” the audiobook and I very highly recommend this format.  Anton Lesser’s nuanced vocalization of the text brought so much to the story and all of the characters’ personalities  – you’re tempted to listen to the whole thing at once.  It was hard to believe that I was listening to just one reader, so varied were the voices and tones that he leant each character.  This Random House/Listening Library edition actually won an AudioFile Earphones Award and was recommended by the American Library Association for both young adults and children. 

At OC Public Libraries, we have the print version of The Ruby in the Smoke (and its sequels), the audiobook and the film, all available for you to check out.  Also, here is a Booklist article about additional Victorian mysteries for young people in our Literature Resource Center database.

No comments: