The Tiger in the Well by Philip Pullman: B

From the back cover:
It’s 1881, and life has been good to Sally Lockhart. Unlike most Victorian women, Sally is completely independent, with her own successful business and a comfortable home for her young daughter, Harriet.

But Sally’s whole world is about to collapse. A stranger emerges, claiming to be both her husband and Harriet’s father and threatening all that she has—her business, her child, her very sanity. Sally realizes with growing horror that there is a guiding hand behind this deceit: someone who hates her so passionately that he has devoted years to bringing about her ruin. And there’s only one man that could possibly be…

No tears this time, but the best ending line ever made me crack up. Pullman has a real knack for unexpected perspectives. In the last book, it was Chaka the dog, and here it was Harriet, Sally’s two-year-old daughter. The (lamentably few) sections from her point of view were among my favorites in the book.

Structurally, The Tiger in the Well was similar to the first book in the series, The Ruby in the Smoke. For quite a while, things didn’t make much sense. There were two different story lines going on and because it wasn’t apparent why I should care about anything not involving Sally, the second story (involving Jews and socialists) was very boring. Pullman did bring everything together eventually, but it took rather too long for my tastes.

Another difference about this book from the others was that Sally largely had to face the peril alone. The threat of losing custody of Harriet drove her out of her comfortable existence and into hiding in parts of London she’d never had cause to visit, caused her to encounter poverty, misery, and exploitation that she’d not previously been exposed to. She also had to care for Harriet on her own and realized how much she was missing by choosing work over Harriet and leaving her in a nurse’s care.

That said, I really missed her friends, especially Jim. Without them, too, Sally wasn’t always as fearless, and sometimes let herself be swept along, as with a patronizing solicitor, longer than usual before finally snapping back to her determined self. These lapses were hard to endure, and sometimes even felt a little out of character.

My last complaint is that the identity of the villain was completely obvious throughout the entire book. Pullman was forced to include a mention of something near the beginning so that readers who started with this book would later understand the significance of the big reveal. To me, that just gave it all away. Also, the reader received several clues that Sally did not, so when she finally put it together, it was not as climactic as it could’ve been.

Even with all of these things to grumble about, I ultimately did still enjoy the story. It got a lot better in the last third or so, once Sally had some allies to help her out and had regained her spirits. The ending hints at her future happiness, as well. Though there is one more book in the series, it does not actually focus on Sally, so it’s nice to have an inkling about how she’ll spend the rest of her life.

The Shadow in the North by Philip Pullman: A-

From the back cover:
The year is 1878, and the spirited Sally Lockhart, once again defying Victorian sensibilities, has gone into business for herself. When one of her clients loses a large sum of money in the unexpected collapse of a British shipping firm, Sally sets out to investigate. But as she delves deeper into the identity of the wealthy and elusive industrialist who owns the doomed company, she uncovers a plot so diabolical that it could eventually subvert the entire civilized world—and if Sally’s enemies have their way, she won’t live long enough to see it happen.

Philip Pullman continues the nerve-shattering story of his canny and courageous heroine in this second Sally Lockhart mystery.

Pullman made me cry like a great big sap again! And more than once, this time.

The Shadow in the North took place 6 years after the first book in the series, and the main characters underwent some changes in that time. Sally, awesomely, attended Cambridge and set up her own financial consulting business. Fred, the photographer, was personally much the same but had been trying unsuccessfully for years to get Sally to marry him, which led to several wonderful half-loving, half-antagonistic scenes between them. Jim, the erstwhile office boy, grew up into a young man with a taste for action and a way with the ladies.

By far, the characters were the best part about the book. I loved each of the three main characters, but found many of the random people encountered as part of the investigation to be interesting, as well. I was also quite fond of Sally’s dog, Chaka. Probably because Pullman took care to show how much the fiercely loyal and protective dog loved her. Okay, yes, this was one thing that made me cry.

I didn’t think the mystery was all that interesting, though. The question was more “how do these things fit together?” and largely dealt with industrial misdeeds. Perhaps that was the point, though. This case, which might seem rather mundane on the surface, ended up impacting the characters most profoundly. And since that is what’s most important to me, I still enjoyed the book very much.

A note on the audio edition: Anton Lesser was again amazing as narrator, but I think the book might actually have been censored. While referencing my paper copy, I noticed that one paragraph, prelude to an act of physical intimacy, was excised and that some lines of post-coital dialogue were altered. The omitted bits were kind of clumsily unsubtle, so it’s possible that Pullman himself did a rewrite at some point, but it does make one suspicious.

The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman: B+

From the back cover:
“Beware the seven blessings…”

When she first utters these words, sixteen-year-old Sally Lockhart doesn’t know their meaning. But when an employee of her late father hears them, he dies of fear. Thus begins Sally’s terrifying journey into the seamy underworld of Victorian London, in search of clues that will solve the puzzle of her father’s death. Pursued by villains and cutthroats at every turn, she at last uncovers two dark mysteries. One involves the opium trade; the other, a stolen ruby of enormous value. Sally soon learns that she is the key to both—and that it’s worth her very life to find out why.

This made me cry, dangit. I swear, I am such a sucker for kind fathers. It’s ridiculous.

Anyway, it took me a little while to get into this book, because there were a few mysteries going on simultaneously and nothing really made sense for a couple of chapters. Sally’s coolness as a character really only emerged once she’d left the care of a distant relation and come to live with a photographer and his sister. Their business was in financial straits, and she delighted in devising ways to get it back on track. I loved that she was a competent girl who excelled at bookkeeping and numbers. The supporting cast were also lively and fun, and I snickered more than once.

Anton Lesser narrated the audiobook and he was fabulous. He had distinct voices for each character, and I’ve never heard a man achieve such a realistic voice for a woman as he did for Mrs. Holland. It really added a lot to the experience.

The actual mystery was a little too Holmesian for my taste, what with secret societies, sparkly jewels, and ties to the Mysterious East. I also didn’t like the use of opium as a means to impart revelations upon the heroine. Still, I enjoyed it well enough to continue on with the series. The library has two more narrated by Lesser, so I will definitely be seeking those out.