Sally Lockhart: A Mystery

Almost everybody in the Western world has read His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman, or heard of it, or seen the film adaptation of the first book, The Golden Compass, directed by Christopher Colombus. But not many people who I know have read his other books, like the Sally Lockhart quartet. I found the first book quite by accident; browsing through the P’s, I was unthinkingly aligning the books, and had to push a small, shabby red book from the very back. It was The Ruby In The Smoke, the first in the Sally Lockhart books. I realised that it was by Phillip Pullman, and interestedly read the blurb – I hadn’t known he’d written any other books, apart from some children’s stories like Mossycoat, which had been an absolute favourite of mine back in Year 3 (before I started reading ‘chapter books’). It turned out to be a thriller mystery, set in the late 19th century in Victorian England, in London, with…a female heroine who was strong, willful, did not need a husband, and who (by the start of the second book) managed several successful businesses, and became an educated businesswoman in charge of a firm. What a story! I quickly finished it, and then went looking for the rest of the quartet.

Unfortunately, while my library had the second and fourth books, it didn’t have the third. Nor did it have the first 3 pages of the fourth book – they were missing, having mysteriously been ripped out. So I read what I could, and hungered to know what I had missed in the third instalment. Finally, I have read the third novel! It is just as good as the rest.

Each novel is not only a great piece of quality writing, with a thoughtful plot full of unexpected twists, but also provides food for thought on several pertinent issues of that time – opium dealing and consumption (book 1), industrialisation and militarisation (book 2), the persecutions and migrations of the Jewish people, exploitation and socialism (book 3), and the royalty (of Razkavia, a tiny imaginary kingdom next to Germany) and art of diplomacy and leadership (book 4). The books also highlight friendship, love, tenacity and loyalty, as well as the ‘true nature of evil’ in Pullman’s opinion – as is clearly shown through Sally Lockhart’s monologue in Tiger In The Well shows:

“another thing I’ve learnt…is what evil looks like. It doesn’t look like a sinister fat man in a wheelchair – it doesn’t look Chinese or Russian or exotic or foreign. Or strange. Those things aren’t evil… [evil is] what makes a man drunk and press a red-hot poker on his child’s back. It’s what makes men have to queue for hours at the docks for the chance of a job, when there are only a dozen jobs for a hundred men, so they fight each other in order to get them, and the foreman laugh and egg them on. It’s what takes an old couple who’ve got nothing left but each other and splits them up to go in the workhouse so they each die alone. It’s what takes rent out of tenements and slums and refuses the responsibility of mending the drains, so that children have to wade knee-deep through filth to get into their houses….Evil….it’s what makes a family starve… with nothing in their little room, nothing, because they’d pawned every spoon and every blanket and every chair, and there was no work, and they starved to death…That’s evil. And you know what’s at the heart of it all? Eh? The gnawing poison cancer destroying and eating and laying waste at the heart of it all?…[It’s] Me and ten thousand others. Because we have shares in the companies that own those buildings and doesn’t repair the drains, and we make money out of the docks that prosper by denying men work, and because we’ve never looked…So I’m guilty, me and all the other share-holders and speculators and capitalists. You know where evil is? It’s not just in you, it’s in….pretending not to know things once you’ve seen them. Seeing something bad and shutting your eyes, turning away.”

-pages 371-3 The Tiger In The Well

A very powerful message is conveyed through Pullman’s writing, one which can be applied to modern times as well as 1881. These types of thought-provoking, gut-wrenching speeches filter the books in a way that does not press readers, but opens their eyes to what England, and other European countries, were like in the 1800’s through the eyes of a young fictional protagonist. Really worth a read, in my opinion (they should be in the YA section in your library).

But here’s a chance to read what Pullman says about the series – straight from his website The Sally Lockhart quartet

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.

There are many more such hackneyed situations awaiting my attention.

Which is a good description of them too. I hope more come through soon, although he hasn’t written one for a while, as the last one was published in 2000.


Below are some of the books he’s written, including some for much younger audiences.

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I was looking for film adaptations of his books, and found that there had been three TV movies of the quartet – and that Billie Piper played Sally Lockhart, the heroine! She plays the human protagonist alongside David Tennant as the 11th Doctor in Dr. Who, in case you’re wondering. Which I found quite coincidental, because Matt Smith, the current Doctor, was in the movies as well, as Sally’s long-time friend, Jim Taylor. So there’s a link! Maybe they go into the past in the Tardis and play themselves, or something…. (ignore my wild and utterly invalid propositions)


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