Reading by Ear: The Ruby in the Smoke

The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman
read by Anton Lesser

Back in high school, I read the first three books of the Sally Lockhart Quartet in sort of a breathless week or so. I was still sorting out how to ferret out books I might like, and had hit upon the tactic of going through the back catalog of every writer I knew I liked. (This is no longer my approach to books, but it is my approach to music, which has, in recent months, helped me discover my love for The New York Dolls.) Philip Pullman, by virtue of His Dark Materials, was a prime candidate. I remembered them fondly but vaguely when I picked up this audiobook to revisit it, but perhaps I should have left it on the shelf…

The Ruby in the Smoke opens with sixteen-year-old Sally Lockhart, the orphaned daughter of Captain Lockhart, asking her father’s business partner about “the Seven Blessings”, a cryptic phrase in a mysterious note she’s just received. The business partner drops dead of shock. The knowledge of that phrase puts Sally in immense danger from all sides, as seemingly the entire criminal world of London is now interested in the aftermath of the Captain’s death. After she flees her aunt’s house and sets up with a family of photographers, Sally decides to strike back and take what is hers—the ruby in the smoke.

I’ll be honest; my main impression of Sally Lockhart, from my adolescence, was how fair she was and how dark her eyes were, something that’s commented on in the novel. I was still recovering from my fervent childhood belief that characters were interesting based on the color of their hair and eyes, and I’d never considered the combination before, even though I knew people who had blonde hair and brown eyes. (I never said I was a particularly bright child.) So it was nice to return to Sally and find a quiet, prim, and determined young lady, aware of her own failings but also aware of her own strengths—including a taste for economics, which I appear to have absorbed somewhere along the line.

But no matter how much I like Sally, I kept drifting away from the novel. That’s the problem of audiobooks, I find; if I’m bored for a moment, I start concentrating more on whatever I’m supposed to be doing (working out, cleaning my room, compulsively playing Pyramids). It’s just so easy to tune it out, and that’s why I don’t review audiobooks for my proper reviews; I’m simply not absorbing the text the same way. (I was once quite shocked when a classmate of mine said she’d listened to the assigned reading. I just couldn’t fathom it.) Despite Pullman’s firm, kind handle on Victorian London, the plot feels like a behemoth unto itself, instead of the characters. Sally meets Frederick Garland, her friend and romantic interest, by the sheerest chance. She often receives information at just the right moment in clunky ways; the ending is a particularly noxious example of this. Balancing a trim plot and characters who feel like people is a great challenge for a mystery writer, and the characters often feel passive and reactionary instead of agents of their own destiny.

So it’s a bit of a shame that such a middling novel has received such a stellar audiobook production. I usually get a little miffed when I find male narrators for books about female protagonists; I’m still not sure what that was about for Wicked. But Anton Lesser does quite an incredible job with the various voices, especially the female voices. I often forgot I was listening to a gentleman at points, so prim, genteel, and determined was his Sally. He plays well with the various accents and gives the narration a crisp, clean, and inconspicuous vocalization. And there’s no music at the end! Although there is a message from Jim Dale, reminding families that listening to audiobooks together makes your kids smart. (My family never went in for audiobooks together, although I do put on “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me!” when I make Sunday breakfast whenever I’m at my parents’ house.) But despite the high production values, I’m not going to pursue the series any further.

Bottom line: The Ruby in the Smoke’s plot feels like a behemoth unto itself, unconcerned with its characters, who feel so passive and reactionary. A nostalgic read for me, but, unfortunately, also a poor one. Nice production values, though.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

4 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: The Ruby in the Smoke

  1. That’s pretty much how I felt about the book–loved the characters and the setting but cannot even vaguely remember the plot. My husband and I have a running joke about how Victorians were so delicate that they were frequently rendered unconscious by a startling letter.

    Your observation about how audiobooks are hard to focus on is absolutely correct. I tend to read very anecdotal books, especially nonfiction, where it doesn’t hurt to lose track of exactly what’s going on. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson was one of my favorites.

  2. I found this book sort of rubbish too! I tried reading it a few times as a kid, couldn’t manage it, and then read it as an adult and didn’t care for it particularly, much as I wanted to. The characters were fun, as you say, but the plot didn’t work for me, and I found the writing sort of dreary.

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