In our roadtrip/vacation van there are four very different readers—different interests, different reading interests, varying attention spans, etc. In addition to these differences and variances, the kids are five and a half years apart. Finding a book that keeps everyone entertained and is appropriate for all ages can be a challenge. Two years ago, The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman fit the bill just fine. This year, we might take in the second in the Sally Lockhart quartet, The Shadow in the North.
“On a cold, fretful afternoon in early October 1872…” It took no more than this opening line for everyone in the car to be on board. On paper it looks rather ordinary as far as first lines go. But read aloud by Anton Lesser (who has Game of Thrones, Shakespeare, Dickens, etc., in his masterfully played/voiced roles) you are instantly and wholly transported to that cold, fretful October afternoon in 1872.
The setting for The Ruby in the Smoke is the seamy underworld of Victorian London. Sixteen-year-old Sally Lockhart, our intrepid heroine, becomes involved in numerous intrigues, adventures, and scrapes, while investigating her father’s recent mysterious death on the South China Sea. Good friends, frightening enemies, the corrupt British opium trade in India, and a fantastic ruby are all a part of this complicated historical mystery.
Not ten minutes into the events of the novel (on the fourth full page if you are reading the book), Ms. Lockhart asks the company secretary of her late father’s shipping agency this question: “Have you ever heard the phrase ‘the Seven Blessings’?” Instead of answering, the man keels over dead.
He took a step forward—then darkness flooded his face, his hands clutched at his waistcoat, and he fell with a crash to the Turkish carpet. One foot kicked and twitched five times, hideously. His open eye was pressed to the carved claw-foot of the chair Sally sat in.
Those messing with yarn or Rubiks-cube-like-puzzles in the backseat put those diversions aside and leaned forward upon hearing about that open eye pressed into the claw-foot chair. This was one of those books in which members of our party lobbied to forgo stopping for lunch because it would mean getting out of the car and therefore stopping the story, however temporarily.
I’ve heard from others that they find this book intriguing to read, but they could not listen to it and follow the complicated plot, ever shifting characters, etc. There are a number of shifts and intricacies that make it a challenge, to be sure. I checked out the book from the library once and found someone’s annotated post-it note list of characters stuck in the cover. But again, when your narrator is Anton Lesser, it is worth listening carefully, I think, and we all managed to follow the considerable action and twists of plot. Pullman started the book as a play and then turned it into a novel. When Lesser is reading it is like watching the story unfold on stage.
The Sally Lockhart series is often described as being Dickensian. To be sure, the villains in this book are very bad, the allies are loyal and very good. There are hags and letches, mixed motives and complicated characters. There’s also opium, violence, and the filth of the London slums. It’s much shorter than David Copperfield, however, while retaining noble Dickensian traits.
Accompanied by The Ruby in the Smoke, we made it to the Canadian border in excellent time, even with a stop for lunch.