Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Ruby in the Smoke - Philip Pullman

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 ?


Anonymous said...

I've never participated in one of these book discussions before, so I'm just going to answer the questions in a list format this time:

1. The Golden Compass/Northern Lights and sequels are undoubtedly my favorite YA books ever written, but I wasn't expecting this to be the same type of thing, so I wasn't disappointed. I also read The Tin Princess (which was great) before The Ruby in the Smoke, and I think that prepared me for what it would be like.

2. I read it back in January, but from what I remember, the events of her father on the ship - and, come to think of it, her opium-induced memories of them - didn't seem wholly believable. But, it really didn't affect my enjoyment of the book, and I do think he succeeded for the most part.

3. Sort of. I enjoyed it, but it's not one of my favorite books and I liked The Tin Princess more. I do want to read the other two eventually, but since I have such a long list of books I want to read already, I may not get around to it for a while.

4. You mean it's out?! I heard they were doing one, but I had no idea it's been released already. I haven't seen it, but I'm going to try and get a copy right away.

Michele said...

Hi Thorn and welcome !!

Yes, The Ruby in the Smoke TV movie has been made. My review is here. Strangely Amazon UK don't seem to be selling the Region 2 (UK) DVD, just the Region 1 version (bit odd that !) I've got it on video as I taped it the night it aired and watched it the next day. I meant to watch it again before starting this discussion, but didn't get to it !

You know that Ruby is the first in the series, not The Tin Princess ?

Catherine Uible Morgan said...

Thought I might be the last to post (as usual) but apparently I'm among the first! I had previously only read one Pullman book which I enjoyed but it was several years ago and now I don't remember which one it was even. Not this one though. Here's what I liked best:
1) the complex storyline
2) build up of suspense beginning with Mrs. Holland taking Adelaide back.
3) the way everything was resolved/explained at the end.

I'll add Pullman's other titles to my, as Thom said, already long list of books I want to read. Even though the cover of the book I read said book one of the Sally Lockhart trilogy, there are four books (or more?) about Sally?

Perhaps I was under the mistaken impression that all of the books we were reading for discussion would be fantasies (because I could tell you are a big fantasy fan!) so I kept waiting for something fantastical to happen. Still a great read though!

Michele said...

No you're not the last Catherine - and thanks for participating.

Yes the series is four books in total - The Ruby in the Smoke, The Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well and The Tin Princess...

And yes, you were mistaken in thinking all the books would be fantasy ones. I didn't want to shut out non-fantasy fans so included some non-genre books as well.

Anonymous said...

I made it here at last! Re the questions, I'm afraid I can only answer one as I can't remember when I first read The Ruby in the Smoke (years ago), have already read the sequels and didn't see the show (though I'd like to). Speaking of the show, though, what did you think of it Michele?

I think Pullman succeeded in making the cliche a natural part of the story. By the end of the book I was drawn into the story and wanting everything to turn out OK. The melodramatic flair just made the story more fun to read!

Catherine, I know someone else who was waiting throughout the book for the fantasy element to come into play, simply because of Pullman's fantasy trilogy, so you're not alone! And it's not as though this type of dramatic story featuring a gemstone wouldn't turn into a fantasy.

Michele said...

I enjoyed the BBC adaptation of Ruby but then excel at period dramas ! Julie Walters' realisation of Mrs Holland was fantastic, and Billie Piper was pretty good as Sally too. I shall make a point of re-watching at some point this week and see how I feel about it now I've re-read the book.

Mai said...

I've just arranged for Netflix to send me the TV movie, but I decided to join in the discussion before I watch it. Then maybe I'll pipe in again.

I actually read this book because a friend of mine was using it as a text book in her grade 8 English class. That decision sill mystifies me. I don't see the value of this book for that purpose. Turns out it wasn't being taught as a core book, but as a 'quick read' where the students read books and then have a sort of quiz bowl contest.

I don't really know what I think to this story. I am not in a huge rush to read the other books in the series. It just didn't engage me as much as I would have liked. That said, I probably WILL read the other books, but if they are as much of a chore as this one is...I don't know that I'll make it through the whole series.

Pullman did exactly what he set out to do with this book - if I had not KNOWN I was reading a 20th century novel, I would have been sure I was reading something much older.

In some ways, that failed it. The characters were just TOO stereotypical and the cliches too many. I found the book tedious to read and too predictable while at the same time being a bit unbelievable.

It could be that a novel like this translates better to film. The film should be here in a day or so...

Michele said...

Mai, I'm sorry to hear you didn't enjoy Ruby very much... I wouldn't recommend reading the other 3 if you found this one a chore because they are sufficiently similar for you not to enjoy them.

I hope you DO enjoy the TV version - please come back and let me/us know your thoughts on it once you've seen it.

Mai said...


I DID enjoy the movie - if anything it gave me a better appreciation for the book. I thought the movie was well done, but I liked the book better. That sounds odd considering I didn't care for the book so much - but the movie gave me a different perspective.

Michele said...

Interesting that although you didn't care for the book that much, you preferred it to the movie...

Little Willow said...

If you had read His Dark Materials before reading The Ruby in the Smoke, did this book meet your expectations or disappoint you?

I have read His Dark Materials, and I intensely enjoy that trilogy. I have been meaning to read the Sally Lockhart books for years, but they always fell into the category of "I'll read them when it's time, when they find me." As time went on, the books hadn't found me, so they had moved to another category: "I'll read them when the mood strikes, or when I'm prompted directly."

Earlier this year, I heard about the Masterpiece Theatre movie and wanted to read Ruby prior to that airing, but I didn't get the chance. I watched the movie anyway, and I'll address that in the last part of this post.

Back to the matter at hand: I have read other Pullman novels between now and then - Clockwork, which I enjoyed; The Scarecrow and his Servant, which I did not, not really - and I was not feel half as impressed with the plot and execution of Ruby as I was with Materials. However, the writing was still good, and I enjoyed the majority of the ride. Did it disappoint me? No. Scarecrow disappointed me. Ruby was okay. I wanted more out of it. See the next answer.

Did you like this book enough to want to read the other three in the series?

Maybe. I do not feel compelled to rush out and check out the other stories. I will probably wait for them, as I did for this, and see when the mood strikes me.

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?

I did see it. It felt rather rushed. In the film, I disliked the reveal* and hoped that the book had more leading up to that moment and more afterwards. (It did not.) I did like the costumes and some of the cinematography. Most of the cast was fine.

Note: Spoilers ahead, but I'll still be somewhat vague!

*The reveal: That he had the ruby for some time, that he didn't tell Sally, and that she was given it by someone else. It was anti-climactic. The ruby was rather lauded in the first third of the story, but I found the final acquistion and then toss-away unfulfilling. I thought the ruby was important, and I do not feel as though it was set up to be a MacGuffin. I was letdown by the last thirty pages or so.

Michele said...

LW, thanks for your long and detailed response. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy The Scarecrow and the Servant which I felt was a clever book that could be read on several levels...

I'm glad that you didn't hate Ruby but I can understand that you didn't feel it matched up to HDM. I think I was lucky to read the Sally Lockhart series before I read HDM, so my enjoyment of the former wasn't coloured by the scope of the latter...

Little Willow said...

You are welcome! :) I updated the post at my blog as well.

Michele said...

Thanks LW !!