Wednesday Book Club: The Ruby in the Smoke

Wednesday, 22 October 2008 — 10:42am | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: The Ruby in the Smoke (1985) by Philip Pullman.

In brief: The first novel in the Sally Lockhart thriller series is an engaging caper, if a rickety one. The Victorian flavour is authentic and never descends into parody or kitsch. There’s a great story hidden beneath the tangled web of opium smugglers and London thugs, though the way it comes out into the open is at times haphazard; the plot depends too much on the cherry-picked concealment of information from the reader to cast a fluid line of discovery.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Ruby in the Smoke, keep reading below.)

As soon as we are finished commending the author for his demonstrable versatility, perhaps it would be for the best if we set his name aside. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is as majestic an opus of fantastic fiction as we are likely to see in the era after Tolkien, and that’s accounting for my cherished Harry Potter. Composed a decade earlier, The Ruby in the Smoke never thinks of aspiring to the dizzying catholicity of Pullman’s later work, and is quite content about it. We should be too.

In Sally Lockhart’s first adventure in the bowels of 1870s London, there are few seeds of His Dark Materials to be found apart from the obvious similarities—the precocious adolescent orphan-or-is-she heroine; the steampunk-minus-the-punk excitement over nineteenth-century technologies and their emergent applications. What a reader will find instead is, on every page, a tempered glee over playing in the Victorian sandbox.

The prose is crafted as if it could have emerged from the setting, and to that purpose, Pullman’s command of Victorian syntax and diction is beyond reproach. It wisely avoids drawing too much attention to itself and takes a backseat to the story, though there are one or two moments when Pullman just can’t resist a wink through his Dickensian mask:

He posted the letter on Friday, in the confident expectation (this was the nineteenth century, after all) of its being delivered before the day was out, and of Sally’s tomorrow being the same as his.

Some of the tricks, like beginning a sentence with “presently”, become transparent from repetition—but on the whole, the style makes the book more readable, not less.

Presently I must dispense a few belated words about the plot. Sally Lockhart arrives on the scene as the daughter of a shipping magnate who went down with a scuttled vessel in the South China Sea, bearing a gun and a note warning her of something called the Seven Blessings. She asks the shipping agency’s secretary about the Seven Blessings, and he promptly drops dead. Well, that was unexpected.

Before long, Sally is in sole possession of a vital clue to the whereabouts of an exotic gemstone from India that has driven many an unfortunate soul into a mad frenzy of greed: the Ruby of Agrapur, also known as the Maltese Falcon. She also has recurring nightmares about an episode from her infancy—hazy memories triggered by the smell of opium—though conveniently, she doesn’t get around to coaxing out the details with another whiff until the back cover peeks over the horizon.

In the meantime, Sally hides from the dogged pursuit of an old crone named Mrs. Holland, the sort of villain who keeps a frightened nine-year-old locked up in the house and periodically chastises her hired toughs for the dimness of their wits. There’s also a third party in the shadows, and between them and Mrs. Holland, a lot of folks turn up dead. This leaves Sally holed up in a photographer’s shop, where she tidies up the finances and comes up with the ingenious idea of selling narrative photo series instead of equipment, all while the action proceeds outside without her.

Literary critics are often careful to distinguish between “story” (events as they happened) and “plot” (events as they are presented). E.M. Forster wrote two pages about it once, and the terms have stuck ever since. To paraphrase Forster, “The king died and then the queen died” is a story; “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. Mystery novels muddy the hierarchy a little further, as they involve a surface plot that reveals a hidden plot, which I only distinguish from “plot revealing story” to emphasize that both layers demand a coherent causality. If anything, a mystery’s surface plot is about taking the story of the hidden layer and figuring out the plot from the evidence.

The Ruby in the Smoke has a marvelous hidden layer: a story of seemingly disconnected clues, and a hidden plot of believable human motivations for every consequential oddity—even (and especially) the ones that have nothing to do with cursed jewels and opium dens, like the enigma of Sally’s late mother. How Pullman drags us from one to the other is not so tidy. I liken it to blindfolding the reader for a trek into the labyrinth and stopping for the occasional peek.

I admit that it commonly takes a second reading to gauge the true elegance of a mystery, but in Pullman’s novel, there’s little escaping the quandary that most of the story’s progress happens offstage. Bodies wash ashore, letters arrive in the post, and newspapers publish obituaries exactly when they need to, and no sooner. We often get the impression that Pullman is withholding information from the reader, and only the reader—a legitimate tactic, but not when it excludes us from the procedure of investigation. It isn’t enough for a mystery to be an intricate jigsaw puzzle; it has to assemble most of the pieces itself. The picture that emerges is a pretty one, but it would have been nice to get there without waiting around for characters who are in the know to show up and tell us what’s going on.

And it’s an adventure story, I know, but the characters are perhaps too nonchalant about asserting the right to lethal self-defence. Killing is okay if the good guys do it, but only because the bad guys tried to do it first. Pardon me if the ethics of the novel are a little sketchy; there are cogent arguments for lethal self-defence, but you won’t find them here. All the same, I suppose the treatment of death is true to the period.

Before the masters of the hard-boiled school came along—Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler—a murder was first and foremost a puzzle to be solved, and secondarily a threat to the protagonist’s objective. The recognition that taking another person’s life is an act that requires a certain personality to accomplish, and transforms the very being of those who manage it, was a later development in the maturation of the detective story. A necessary one, too, though it directly threatened the genre’s drawing-room coziness. But look at a writer like J.K. Rowling: for all of her fundamental Englishness and Pythonic humour, the acknowledgment that murder is an act of soul-rending cruelty is the core of her villain’s construction. It is why I expect her series to endure.

This is why I said it would be prudent to avoid comparing Pullman to himself. If you remember the finale of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass (unlike the film adaptation), you’ll notice that even in a series that actively resists any and all top-down schema of imposed morality, Pullman appeals to a solid set of expectations about what it is or isn’t appropriate to do, and is unambiguous about delineating the means that are never justified by their ends. Far from presenting an amoral universe, the His Dark Materials trilogy demands that we rebuild morality from the bottom up instead of receiving it in dictation. The Ruby in the Smoke is lighter fare: corpses are corpses, and that’s that.

By the way, every time a character in a book reads another book, you should sit up and take notice. In The Ruby in the Smoke, that character is Jim Taylor, a boy almost as smitten with Sally as he is with penny dreadfuls. Jim comprehends a lot that the others don’t simply by virtue of believing, nay, knowing that the world is full of pirates, triads, and murders most foul. Here, then, is our baseline for understanding what Pullman is doing with the genre and setting: the Victorian milieu may be a playground for a gripping home-front tale of maharajahs and colonial regiments coupled with a brief advisory to the kids (“don’t smoke opium”), but the novel is also an exercise in prodding tired clichés and tapping them for all the mileage they have left.

A nostalgic revival of popular genre fiction that never found its way into the literary canon is an open invitation to celebrate genre as a whole, asking us to consider that apparent clichés are something we can work with and not against. What Pullman has written is a penny dreadful for a decimalized Britain. In the conversion, something was lost: strip away the meaty delights of a good novel—the motivated characters, the casually melodious prose, the atmosphere of intrigue and romance—and the frame that remains is a passable skeleton at best.

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