In Philip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke 16 year old Sally Lockhart lives in Victorian London. Her mother died during the Indian Mutiny when she was a baby and now her father, a shipping agent, has been drowned whilst out in the Far East. One morning she receives a cryptic note that warns her of danger but tells her that "Marchbanks will help", although she knows no one by that name. She decides to visit her father’s offices and asks Higgs, the company secretary, about the note. However, when she mentions "the Seven Blessings" to him (one of the things mentioned in the note), he has a heart attack and dies. Shortly afterwards she talks to Jim, the office boy, who had overheard Sally’s conversation with Higgs and he offers to help Sally find out why her father died.
Whilst Sally is thus engaged, Mrs Holland (a nasty old woman who runs a grim lodging house in Hangman's Wharf at Wapping) has intimidated a Major Marchbanks into leaving an immensely valuable ruby to her in his Will. Marchbanks writes to Sally warning her of danger but insisting also that he must see her. When she goes to see him in Kent, he is very scared because Mrs. Holland is also there. He gives Sally an old diary and sends her away but Mrs. Holland follows her; fortunately Sally is able to hide in the dark tent of a photographer, Frederick Garland, whom she had already met on the riverbank as she was heading to Major Marchbanks' home. As she's heading back to London on the train, Sally reads the diary Marchbanks gave her, but she falls asleep and when she wakes up, the diary has been stolen although a few loose sheets from have dropped, unseen, onto the floor. Mrs Holland, who had arranged for the theft of the diary, wants the loose pages and will stop at nothing to get them back. Besides, she has a grudge of her own against the Lockharts and she intends to get her revenge on Sally as the last surviving member of the family.
Simultaneously, Matthew Bedwell, a sailor who is struggling against his opium addiction, arrives at the docks and takes a lodging with Mrs Holland. She supplies him with opium because in his delirium he mentions fragments of his own story, which is concerned with Sally’s father and the sinking of his ship. In fact Lockhart had given Bedwell instructions to find Sally and give her a message. From what she can piece together from Bedwell’s ramblings, Mrs Holland realises that she has some very useful information with which to bribe Mr Lockhart’s business partner. In the meantime, Sally, with the help of Jim and Frederick Garland, must discover what is going on before something terrible happens to her.
Discussing the Sally Lockhart series of books, Philip Pullman says on his website
Historical thrillers, that's what these books are. Old-fashioned Victorian blood-and-thunder. Actually, 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.
Some questions about the book that you might want to consider and discuss:
1. If you had read His Dark Materials before reading The Ruby in the Smoke, did this book meet your expectations or disappoint you ?
2. In the quotation from Philip Pullman above, he says he tried to make the central cliché form a natural and realistic part of the story. Do you think he succeeded in this ? Which elements of the story are most/least believable ?
3. Did you like this book enough to want to read the other three in the series ?
4. Have you seen the BBC TV adaptation starring Billie Piper as Sally Lockhart, and if so did you like it ? If you liked it, did you prefer it to the book ?