The Ruby in the Smoke

The Ruby in the Smoke Book Review
Phillip Pullman
4 / 5

Genre | Young Adult Mystery
Published: 1985
Goodreads | 3.8 

This was a book I read when I was 12 or 13 and it was a book I remember enjoying immensely, yet I haven’t reread it…until now.

This Young-Adult mystery is centred around the suspicious death of Sally Lockhart’s father in the South China Sea which has left her a teenage orphan alone in the smoky fog of Victorian London. Her father’s death and dying note to her triggers a series of events that place her in terrible danger. The danger and mystery deepen, and at the heart of this fascinating tale lies the deadly secret of the ruby in the smoke..

The mystery begins when Sally endeavours to uncover the significance of her father’s last warning to her – ‘Beware the Seven Blessing.’ She intends to pursue this lead and find out the identity of his killer and bring the villain to justice. Shortly after her arrival at her father’s trading office, she becomes embroiled in another murder, the vagaries of the opium trade, and the mystery of the disappearance of the fabled Ruby of Agrapur. During her adventures in London, she encounters a few associates who become true friends, including a young errand boy named Jim, an amiable photographer by the name of Frederick Garland and his friendly actress of a sister Rosa. Before the game is played out, she will need her new-found friends in her race against the clock to make sense of her convoluted past and discover just who is behind the strange web of betrayal and deceit that has taken over her life. 

Pullman captures the Victorian turn of phrase very well, I can definitely see some Dickensian influence as well as a sprinkling of Conan Doyle mystery, a brilliant combination. The characters and settings are described in great detail, especially the streets of London, which were given special attention to from Pullman. The murky environments of Victorian London areas like Wapping are crafted intricately, even more so, the shady opium den which fits perfectly in with the narrative. The secondary characters were well developed, and each of them were crucial to the central plot, which was a great technique used by Pullman, and he did it successfully. However, there were a few last minute liberties written into the story to make things work, some lucky coincidences and an inheritance plot to coalesce everything together, but these are minor issues in the grand scheme of things.

The villain Mrs Holland is a great character, but unlike Mrs Coulter from Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, I didn’t quite buy the web of influence and power she seemed to have accrued throughout London. The sense of danger was a bit hit-and-miss, but the build-up and action flowed very well and made for a quick read, especially at 230 pages long.

The Ruby in the Smoke is a great Young Adult mystery with a decent female protagonist, a plethora of well developed secondary characters, a strong narrative with a fitting conclusion, and interesting aspects of the opium trade, London and the South China Sea area. I will definitely be reading the second book in the Sally Lockhart quartet series. A very much recommended book for lovers of Young Adult fiction and mysteries.  

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