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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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09/08/2008 Archived Entry: "Novel review: Ruby in the Smoke"

The Ruby in the Smoke
By Philip Pullman
Published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
ISBN-10: 0394895894
ISBN-13: 9780394895895

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

This is the first of a series of children's books written by Philip Pullman, the author of "The Golden Compass", which is part of a trilogy entitled "His Dark Materials" that has been denounced as atheistic by the Catholic Church. Never having read these books, nor seen the movie based upon "The Golden Compass", I don't have any preconceived notions of the author's alleged atheism or the grudge he supposedly has against the Catholic Church, of which I am a member. Therefore I was able to judge this charming book on its own merits.

"The Ruby in the Smoke" was originally published twenty-one years ago, and recently re-released, probably to take advantage of the publicity caused by "The Golden Compass". I found it riveting from page one; it has an old fashioned flavor that reminds me of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. It takes place in the Victorian era, just like the Holmes stories, and uses historically accurate detail to fill you in on sixteen-year-old Sally Lockhart's background and lifestyle without overwhelming you. It's an old fashioned mystery that begins with Sally going to London to visit her father's shipping office after his death. She has received a mysterious note from abroad warning her to "Beware of the Seven Blessings". But when she questions one of her father's employees about it, a rotund gentleman named Higgs, he has a heart attack and dies of fright.

This interesting beginning turns into a search for a cursed ruby from India, Sally's inheritance from her late father, who served in the army during the Indian Mutiny. The story is filled with sinister villains, the main ones being an old hag named Mrs. Holland and her hulking henchman Jonathan Berry, and a mysterious sailor with a Dutch name, Hendrik Van Eeden, and Chinese features, as well as frequent chase scenes and last minute escapes.

It co-stars Jim Taylor, an urchin who works at the shipping office and is addicted to penny dreadful magazines, Frederick Garland, a handsome young photographer with no business sense, and his actress sister Rosa, who help Sally hide out after she is forced to leave her loathsome guardian's house. Everything moves so fast, you'll wonder why the story is so short when you finally reach the end. It has all the flavor of one of Sir Arthur's best efforts with less of the wordiness. The language is a bit racy (the word "bitch" is the strongest obscenity used), but well within the bounds of decency for young people, at least by modern standards. Strangely enough, one of the supporting characters is a clergyman, a Reverend Nicholas Bedwell, who is searching for his missing twin brother, a sailor who was aboard the doomed ship on which Sally's father died after it was attacked by Chinese pirates. I guess Mr. Pullman isn't opposed to all religion, if he doesn't object to having a Christian clergyman playing a minor role in one of his books.

I, for one, enjoyed "The Ruby in the Smoke" and look forward to the reissuing of the other three volumes of the Sally Lockhart Mysteries, "The Shadow in the North", "The Tiger in the Well", and "The Tin Princess". Maybe they will replace "The Golden Compass" in the affections of the young readers who helped to make it so popular. "The Ruby in the Smoke" certainly looks like a good prospect for a PBS TV movie that would rival the ones released earlier this year based on Jane Austen's romance novels.

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