Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart mysteries

Like many people, I'd guess, my first encounter with the work of Philip Pullman was His Dark Materials. Marketed as young adult novels, the trilogy—Northern Lights/The Golden Compass (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000)—featured themes not usually found in books aimed at middle schoolers, such as the murder of children, the death of God, and cosmos-healing sex between 13-year-olds.

But before Pullman became famous for His Dark Materials, he wrote another young adult series: the Sally Lockhart mysteries. It's pretty unusual for a male writer to feature a heroine; Pullman did it in both of these series.

In the first Sally Lockhart title, The Ruby in the Smoke (1985), the heroine is a 16-year-old in late Victorian London. As the book opens she is trying to learn more about the death of her father, Matthew Lockhart. Matthew was a shipping agent who drowned when his company's schooner was sunk in the South Seas with the loss of (almost) all hands, leaving Sally orphaned and virtually penniless. Sally's investigation brings her into contact with a gritty underworld of opium dens, brothels, East End slums, and street gangs.

It also brings her into contact with the legacies of British colonialism: the military occupation and exploitation of India, and the forced opium trade with China. (It soon becomes clear that the ruby of the title is derived from the former, while the smoke derives from the latter.) The later books in the series deal with the arms trade (The Shadow in the North (1986)), Jewish immigration and 19th-century social and labor movements (The Tiger in the Well (1990)), and great-power conflicts over resource-rich smaller countries (The Tin Princess (1994)). But while the books are firmly grounded in the grim realities of 19th-century capitalism and imperialism, they are also ripping yarns featuring criminal masterminds, powerful industrial magnates, international spies, and other fiendishly evil nemeses for Sally.

Aiding Sally over the course of the series are Frederick Garland, a photographer who is a few years older than Sally; Jim Taylor, an office boy and former street urchin, who becomes Frederick's assistant; and later, Daniel Goldberg, a Jewish refugee and labor organizer. As with Will in His Dark Materials, the men occasionally threaten to take over the narrative; fortunately, Sally is such a compelling character that the focus never shifts away from her for too long.

The voice of the narrator is also somewhat unusual. Sometimes the narrator adopts the limited point of view of the characters, especially when the situation is suspenseful or perilous. But at other times the narrator takes time out to explain the world of Victorian England from the standpoint of our contemporary mores—probably a necessary concession to the teenagers who are the books' intended audience, but a slightly disorienting shift in perspective nonetheless.

Apart from the narrator, there are a few other mild anachronisms as well. In The Shadow in the North, a factory is illuminated by electric light several years before the commercial manufacture of incandescent bulbs, and a character is described as having "a wide knowledge of matters on the fringe of psychology" at least a decade before the term "psychology" was in wide use. Pullman also discreetly signals his own tastes, as when he name-checks Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope. Jim has a substantial collection of penny dreadfuls, referred to throughout the series, that he enthusiastically shares with other characters; after the first two novels in the Sally Lockhart series were published, Pullman wrote a book based on a character from penny dreadfuls, Spring-Heeled Jack (1989).

The level of violence in the series is amazingly high for books ostensibly aimed at young readers. Savage beatings and fights are described in gruesome detail, and over the course of the series characters are shot, stabbed, burned to death, killed by dogs, mutilated by bombs, drowned, crushed, felled by heart attacks, and plummet to their deaths. And it's not just the bad guys who get hurt: Frederick, Jim and Sally all sustain major injuries at various points, and (not to give too much away) one of them doesn't survive the series.

Another atypical aspect of the books is Pullman's frankness about sex. Prostitution, rape, and sexual torture are alluded to, although not described graphically. In the second volume in the series, The Shadow in the North, Sally and Frederick go to bed together—outside of wedlock!—while in the third volume in the series, The Tiger in the Well, it's suggested that Sally sleeps with a man she finds loathsome in order to divert suspicion and extract information.

If those aspects of the books seem aimed at modern sensibilities, other features are derived from sensationalist Victorian fiction itself. As Philip Pullman has written, "I wrote each one with a genuine cliché of melodrama right at the heart of it, on purpose: the priceless jewel with a curse on it—the madman with a weapon that could destroy the world—the situation of being trapped in a cellar with the water rising—the little illiterate servant girl from the slums of London who becomes a princess . . . And I set the stories up so that each of those stock situations, when they arose, would do so naturally and with the most convincing realism I could manage."

How convincing that realism is depends on the reader, of course. For me, the books get steadily more fantastic as the series progresses. The Tin Princess, in particular, reads a bit like a novelized Tintin adventure: it's set a central European principality riddled with spies, skullduggery and nefarious plots, which our protagonists confront with forthrightness and pluck.

A gap of several years separates each subsequent volume in the series from the previous books. The Ruby in the Smoke takes place in 1872, when Sally is 16; The Shadow in the North takes place six years later, in 1878; The Tiger in the Well three years after that, in 1881; and The Tin Princess the following year. Pullman may have created a minor dilemma for himself by spacing the books so far apart chronologically; Sally is an adult by the start of the second book, and a mother by the start of the third, which is perhaps why she only has a cameo role in the last book. I'm thinking, though, that should Pullman ever want to return to these characters—and I hope that he does—there might be room for an adventure or two in the gaps between the books in the original series.

So if you give the books to a 12-year-old, be prepared to face some interesting questions. I recommend reading them yourself first—but that's a task that will be highly enjoyable whether or not you intend to pass them on to a young person later. As with His Dark Materials, the Sally Lockhart series is utterly addictive. Once you're hooked (which for me happened by the time I hit the second chapter of the first book), you'll want to devour them all.

The first two books in the Sally Lockhart series were adapted for television, with Billie Piper in the role of Sally. I haven't yet seen these films, but it strikes me that Piper may perhaps be miscast as the autodidact Sally (she was certainly miscast as Fanny Price in ITV's dreadful 2007 Mansfield Park, miswritten by Maggie Wadey and misdirected by Ian McDonald, and broadcast in the US as part of the PBS series The Complete Jane Austen). Still, I'll reserve judgment until I have a chance to see them.

Philip Pullman's informative website includes the author's own discussions of his books, along with brief extracts from each, and was the source of the cover images of the Sally Lockhart novels in this post.

Update 8 May 2013: Last night we watched the first of the two BBC Sally Lockhart adaptations, The Ruby in the Smoke (2006), and thought that it was pretty well done—but we would have been lost in places without having read the book first. Billie Piper acquits herself well as Sally, although the actress is clearly somewhat older than the character. Pullman's Sally is 16, while we're told at the beginning of screenwriter Adrian Hodges' television version that it is 1874, making Sally 18; Piper looks to be in her mid-20s. Jim, too, who is about 13 in Pullman's book, is here portrayed by Matthew Smith, a (very tall) actor who also clearly left his teens behind half a decade ago.

Hodges makes a few other changes as well, minor (Sally gets back the pistol her father gave her, rather than having to buy another one) and major (the final confrontation with Mrs. Holland takes place at Hangman's Wharf rather than on the more dramatic Tower Bridge). The filmmakers have also made the interesting choice to bring in a third British colonial reference after the military occupation of India and the opium trade with China by casting three of the characters as Afro-Caribbean. Among them are the sailor Matthew Bedwell and his twin brother the Rev. Nicholas Bedwell, both played by David Harewood. In addition to the reference to the slave trade in the British Caribbean, there is another historical basis for this choice: the Rev. George Cousens, a prominent Afro-Caribbean minister in the mid-19th century.

In other roles, JJ Feild, a wonderfully sympathetic Henry Tilney in ITV's 2007 Northanger Abbey, is a wonderfully sympathetic Frederick Garland here. And Julie Walters is a magnificently malevolent Mrs. Holland; her performance is reason enough to watch the film.

In adapting Pullman's book into a 90-minute runtime there was necessarily some compression, particularly at the denouement, but most of the scenes, incidents and characters in the novel make it into the film. Inevitably, perhaps, the movie feels like the introduction to a series, with (as in the book) a couple of major plot threads left dangling; it's unfortunate that to date only one more entry in the series has been produced. Still, on the basis of the strengths of this film we're looking forward to seeing its sequel, The Shadow in the North (2007)—I'll post about it here once we do.

Update 17 May 2013: The adaptation of The Shadow in the North is more straightforward than that of Ruby in the Smoke, and the outlines of the story should be clear even for those who haven't read the book. As before, the Victorian setting is nicely evoked, and Billie Piper, JJ Feild, and Matt Smith make most welcome returns from the first episode.

The flaw of this second (and likely final, alas) episode in the series is its villain. In Ruby, Elliot Cowan wasn't my image of Hendrik van Eeden, but it didn't much matter—Julie Walters was the perfect embodiment of the relentlessly malignant Mrs. Holland. In Shadow, Jared Harris is also not my image of the amoral industrial magnate Axel Bellman. But here it's a bigger problem: Bellman is the central villain, and Harris simply wasn't sufficiently sinister.

I also found the blind casting, admirable though it is in theory, to be distracting in practice. Nellie Budd is played by Doña Croll, an actress born in Jamaica; casting the spiritualist medium as an Afro-Caribbean woman seemed to flirt with cliché. And the dreadlocks on Bellman's henchman Mr. Brown (Vyelle Croom) seemed, er, dreadfully anachronistic.

Still, this adaptation is pretty effective. It's a shame that the series never reached the third and fourth books, both of which have key scenes that would lend themselves readily to cinematic treatment.

Update 1 May 2013: The comments below contain spoilers—if you plan to read the books, you may want to wait until you have before taking a look at the comments.


  1. I guess I'm one of the few--I was given the Sally Lockhart books in my teens, as they were published. I still have them, though I haven't read them in a long time; I was SO DISAPPOINTED in The Amber Spyglass (which I bought the day it came out) that I went completely off Pullman and mostly haven't read him since.

    I remember loving the ridiculous adventure of the books--The Tin Princess was my favorite--and weird elements like ancient plague pits, and the descriptions of what Victorian working life was like (phossy jaw!). OTOH I was annoyed at the heavy-handed socialist message (IMO Pullman's big weakness is how he often lets his Message overshadow his story) and the total aggravation of Fredrick's exit.

    I suppose I should re-read them to see what I think now. It's been a long time. But then I'd have to read a Pullman book and be annoyed at him all over again!

    1. Be forewarned: this comment contains spoilers.

      Jean, even though I'd guess that I largely share his politics, I agree that Pullman can sometimes can be heavy-handed. This is especially an issue in The Tiger in the Well, when Daniel Goldberg almost single-handedly faces down a violent anti-Jewish mob in a scene that is the most credulity-straining in any of the books (which is saying something).

      Another dismaying moment in that book comes when Sally finally confronts the evil that has destroyed not only her life but those of thousands of others, and collapses helplessly. That inexplicable moment is utterly inconsistent with the fierceness and resolve she has demonstrated throughout the series. Pullman should have found another way to get her and her nemesis down into that flooding cellar.

      And I, too, think that it was a mistake for him not to have Frederick continue in the series; Sally and Frederick are an ideal match. But I think that Pullman would argue that in real life the people we like aren't somehow magically spared from sorrow, injury and death; the circumstances of Frederick's exit from the series, though, seem particularly pointless.

      So, the Sally Lockhart series is far from perfect. But even though I occasionally reacted with annoyance, dismay, or disbelief at certain points in the stories, I still couldn't put the books down. And for the sheer compellingness of his narratives, and his unflinching inclusion of the brutal realities of poverty and exploitation in this series for teenaged readers, I think Pullman deserves high praise.

      Many thanks for your comment!



    2. Well, regardless of what the politics are, I don't like it when the author lets the message warp the story. Amber Spyglass was particularly disappointing that way. It's not like I didn't know Pullman's convictions before I read it, but it felt like he got so carried away with his agenda that it screwed up the story.

      I no longer remember the final confrontation, so I guess I'd really better read the books again. And I'm OK with sorrow, injury, and death--but the particular method was so pointless, as you say!

  2. OK, I'm jumping in to adulate Philip Pullman. Youth literature, if it's at all good, is tricky business. It's not Literature (with that capital "L"), but (in my view) writing that grips a child's, tween's, or teen's imagination and takes it places it's never been before. Most youth series that I've encountered are mundane, have pretty tame adventures (even if "exciting," it's going to be "OK"), teach "good lessons," are heavily censored and talk down to kids. Then there are the exceptional authors: Lemony Snicket, Roald Dahl, Susan Cooper, Madeleine L'Engle, C.S. Lewis (sort of; talk about "his agenda"! - I'll take Pullman's "heavy handedness" any day!).

    So, to put my cards on the table: I loved Pullman's "Dark Materials" (the best youth epic as tragedy fantasy I've probably read since Tolkien). I read the Sally Lockhart novels after (although not The Tin Princess, which struck me as a tag on). I found the trilogy not as well crafted as "His Dark Materials," but still pretty great. I agree that the fictional landscape slides from a gritty late Victorian fantasy to an utterly fantastical one, so indeed it loses that "grip on reality" (if we want to use "reality" as any criterion for fiction in the first place). But again, my measure of youth literature success is how much it challenges the imagination of the child, tween, or teen reader. And for my money, Sally Lockhart is a marvelous heroine.

    What kind of heroine is Sally? Well, one that's the product of a male writer's imagination - and on this score, Pullman has abundant company, even among the literary elite. But he has at least crafted a heroine who is active, resourceful, intelligent, enterprising, crafty, successful - the kind of young woman who can outdo men in a man's world (in contrast to an overabundance of passive girls and women in Victorian literature, and since). Her willingness to be bold, to put herself into the fray, to pursue her sexual passions - I assure you, plenty of twelve-year-old girls (as well as boys) have those fantasies, too. And the fact that she has a daughter out of wedlock, whom she deeply loves, is another plus for me (loving and going to extreme lengths to defend a baby doesn't show up in many adventures for boys). So the violence, passion, and criminal machinations of the trilogy do not not bother me at all (nor did they bother, I believe, my daughter, when she read them during middle school years).

    If Sally Lockhart provokes interesting questions in young readers, my advice: listen to what the child says. Chances are that her (or his) fantasy life is at least as dramatic and fantastical as Sally Lockhart's adventures - if not more so.

    I doubt Pullman will write any more Sally Lockhart books. But illustrator Jacques Tardi has an equally compelling heroine, Adèle Blanc-Sec, whose adventures take place in Paris (and elsewhere) during the twilight of the Belle Epoque. Fantagraphics Books ( has translated the first four "extraordinary adventures" into two volumes. Since these are comics, not print novels, they are read in an entirely different way. But for those who enjoy the comics medium, I find Adèle Blanc-Sec equally satisfying.

    1. M. Lapin, another thoughtful and thought-provoking comment—many thanks.

      Re: realism, it's Pullman himself who says that "convincing realism" was one of his goals in writing the series. But realism, as we know, is in the eye of the beholder. As a fan of opera and Bollywood movies, I see realism less as a matter of verisimilitude to everyday life, and more as a matter of emotion. Handel's Alcina features a sorceress as the title character, and takes place on her enchanted island. But in situation after situation, the emotions on display—love, joy, desperation, despair—are very real.

      Whether that sort of realness is important for imaginative engagement varies from reader to reader and from work to work, of course. I've enjoyed fictions set in alternative Victorian eras containing computers (William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine (1990), or witches and flying machines (Hayao Miyazaki's animated version of Diana Wynn-Jones' Howl's Moving Castle (2004)).

      Although Pullman sets his books in a historically specific time and place, it doesn't really matter to me that light bulbs are in use a few years early. But it does matter whether people act in a way that accords with what we recognize as their characters and motivations. And when in Tiger in the Well a violent paid mob of street thugs is turned aside by Daniel Goldberg's eloquence, or Sally collapses helplessly when she finally confronts the evil that threatens her and her daughter, it doesn't feel very real to me. Fortunately these sorts of lapses are rare in the series, and I second your endorsement of the books as imaginatively engaging.

      And Sally is a wonderful heroine, who (that scene in Tiger excepted) is indeed smart, resourceful and courageous. In fact, Sally reminds my loving partner of the Final Girl, the smart, resourceful and courageous heroine of slasher movies as described by Carol Clover in Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton University Press, 1992). One key difference: Clover theorized that the Final Girl was required to remain virginal in order for teenaged boys to identify with her; girls who are sexually active in slasher movies tend to wind up dead. Fortunately, although Pullman's books echo the tropes of horror and slasher movies in some other ways, his heroine's sexuality doesn't prove fatal (at least, to her: my partner thought that Frederick's death felt like a punishment of Sally for having sex).

      The Adèle Blanc-Sec comics follow horror/slasher movie conventions even more closely. While I found that the fantastical and supernatural aspects of the books actually lessened my imaginative engagement with their stories, Adèle herself is a compelling (though somewhat enigmatic) character. And Tardi's highly detailed evocation of Belle Epoque cityscapes, interiors and objects adds the element of the marvelous largely missing, for this reader, anyway, from the convoluted and deliberately over-the-top narratives.

      Thanks again for your comment!