I have just this moment finished reading the most extraordinary book.
You’ll all know the author, Philip Pullman, from his wonderful work as the creator of the His Dark Materials trilogy – if you don’t already love these books, you’d better get your act together, is all I’ll say, as they are the best series of children’s books I know of. However, a lot of people don’t know that Pullman was an author for years before these books became huge, and this one – the second in his Sally Lockhart quartet of mystery stories – was originally published in 1986. My edition is from 1999, published by Scholastic Children’s Books.
I make a particular note of the publisher because, at several points during the reading of this book, I had to stop and take a look at the flyleaf, just to be sure I hadn’t misread it. Why? Well, The Shadow in the North is the least children’s book-y children’s book I have ever read.
I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I loved this book, and I’m about to tell you why. But it’s not a children’s book. I wouldn’t even class it as a YA book. It’s definitely a story for people who’ve done all their growing up, and who like to have their heads challenged by an intriguing mystery and wonderful characters and soul-wrenching loss and political-economic wrangling and steam power and social class… In short, it’s fantastic.
Sally Lockhart, for starters, is a wonderful character. Several years ago I read The Ruby in the Smoke, the first of the four books in which she features, but this book is a huge departure from its predecessor. Perhaps it’s partly because it’s been so long since I stepped into Sally’s London, but there’s also the fact that six years have passed in her world. We left Sally as a young woman – now, she is an adult who runs her own business and who has worked very hard to set herself up. It is 1878, an era of gaslights and steam power and carriages and gentry, and every corner of this story drips with detail – but it’s done so well that you never feel crowded. Sally has become a financial advisor (which is such an amazing thing for a woman of her era to do, I can’t even tell you how pleased I was by it), who knows her way around stock markets and share prices and investments. She is also closely involved with her dear friends Fred and Jim, photographers, and the three of them occasionally solve a mystery or two, too. She has offices, and a wonderful dog named Chaka, and a life she has fought hard for. She is proud, independent, intelligent and hard-working, and I love her.
But then, into her office one day comes a woman who had sought advice from Sally about where to invest her money a couple of years before the story opens. Sally had advised her to put it into shipping – the North Star line in particular – but the business subsequently collapsed. Sally is appalled. She hadn’t realised this had happened, and she’s devastated that her client has lost her money. She promises to get back her investment in full – but then the woman says that she’s convinced there was more to it than a simple company collapse. All was not well in the workings of the North Star, and she feels sure it was scuttled deliberately. People were killed, and many thousands lost their money. Sally, of course, is determined to get to the bottom of it.
So begins a tale of shadowy financial goings-on, stage magicians, back-street clientele, spiritualism, power, money and bankruptcy, not to mention invention, weapons dealing, and love. The further Sally pokes into the affairs of the mysterious and powerful Axel Bellmann, the owner of the White Star group of companies, the deeper she involves herself in a darkening web of terror which draws in gentry and street-dwellers alike. The connections between people in this book are fascinating – is a particular gentleman the lover, or the son, of a particular lady? Is another character married, and if so to whom, and why? What connects the old showgirl Nellie Budd, now working as a spiritualist, to Alistair Mackinnon, the stage magician? – and I admired the way Pullman wove the story together, right to its (tear-inducing) climax. The tale takes in politics – the instability in Russia which would become the revolutions of the early twentieth century, and the disruption of social class which was beginning to unseat the gentry in England, not to mention Sally’s own status as an unmarried working woman and the assumptions made about her as a result – as well as the most wonderful love story between two characters matched perfectly in intelligence, understanding and mutual respect, so proud and independent that it almost keeps them apart, until – but I can’t say any more for fear of spoilers, and also because it pains me to think about it.
There’s a tip of the hat to Bram Stoker and to the social conditions of the time (the poverty in which some characters live is unstintingly described), and it’s a book very much sited in the realities of nineteenth-century life, but really it’s a love song to the steam age, featuring trains and steam power at the heart of its mystery. It takes in British ingenuity and hard work, clashes between unions and employers, the thrilling fear of inventiveness and what the human brain is capable of producing. It is perfectly paced, and the set-up to its (absolutely brilliant but heart-shredding) ending is masterfully handled. It did, perhaps, get slightly sentimental in the last few paragraphs, but perhaps that’s another nod to the era in which it’s set.
Just in case I haven’t convinced you already, it also features illegitimate unions, and the selling of daughters as brides (as well as a threat that money will not be paid if the girl is found to be anything less than a virgin on her wedding night), and accusations of moral impropriety, and a love scene. It opens with a detailed discussion of socio-economics. Also, it features exactly one child, who is a peripheral character – wonderfully drawn, of course, but utterly unimportant to the story – so, you can see why I marvelled at its publisher, and the fact that I found it shelved under the children’s section.
So. Not a children’s book, but a brilliant book nonetheless. If you like period mysteries, give it a whirl.