The Ruby in the Smoke

by Tony Watkins Books
Book title: The Ruby in the Smoke
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: first published by Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 1985

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Sally Lockhart is a sixteen year old girl in Victorian London whose mother died during the Indian Mutiny when she was a baby. Now her shipping agent father has been drowned in the Far East. She receives a cryptic note one morning warning her of danger and telling her that ‘Marchbanks will help’. She visits her father’s offices and asks Higgs, the company secretary, about a couple of the things in the note. When she mentions ‘the Seven Blessings’, the man has a heart attack and dies. A little later she talks to the office-boy, Jim, who had overheard Sally’s conversation. He offers to help Sally find out why her father died.

Meanwhile, Mrs Holland – a very nasty old woman who runs a grim lodging house in Hangman’s Wharf, Wapping – has intimidated Major Marchbanks into leaving an immensely valuable ruby to her in his Will. Marchbanks writes to Sally warning her of danger but insisting that he must see her. When she visits him in Kent, he is very scared since Mrs. Holland is also in the vicinity. He gives Sally an old diary and sends her away. Mrs. Holland follows after, but Sally hides in the dark tent of a photographer, Frederick Garland. Later, Sally falls asleep on the train back to London while she is reading the diary. When she wakes up, the diary has been stolen though a few loose sheets from the end of the diary had dropped onto the floor. Mrs Holland, who had arranged for the theft, wants these final pages and will stop at nothing to get them back. Besides, she has a grudge of her own against the Lockharts and she intends to get her revenge.

Coincidentally, Matthew Bedwell, a sailor struggling with opium addiction, arrives at the docks and takes lodging with Mrs Holland. She supplies him opium because in his delerium he tells fragments of his own story which is concerned with Sally’s father and the sinking of his ship. In fact Lockhart had given Bedwell instructions to find Sally and give her a message. With what she can piece together from Bedwell’s ramblings, Mrs Holland realises that she has some very useful information with which to bribe Mr Lockhart’s business partner.

Sally, with the help of Jim and Frederick, must discover what is going on before something terrible happens to her.


The Ruby in the Smoke is a reworking for older readers of a play called The Curse of the Indian Rubies and  was first published in 1985. It was with this book that Philip Pullman ‘first found the voice that I now tell stories in’ (Pullman, Philip, ‘An introduction to . . . Philip Pullman’ in James Carter (ed.) Talking Books: Children’s authors talk about the craft, creativity and process of writing (Routledge, 1999) p.182), and he enjoyed the characters so much it became the first four books about Sally Lockhart and her friends. The later books are The Shadow in the North (first published as The Shadow in the Plate, Oxford University Press, 1986), The Tiger in the Well (Penguin, 1991), and The Tin Princess (Penguin, 1994).

Pullman taught a course on Victorian novels at Westminster College, Oxford and he vividly brings to life the seedy East End of Victorian London. The ominous-sounding (but apparently invented) location of Hangman’s Wharf in Wapping appears in two other unrelated books (Spring-Heeled Jack and Northern Lights/The Golden Compass where it has moved from Wapping to Limehouse) – it’s a name which nicely captures the combination of crime and commerce. Philip Pullman says:

Historical thrillers, that's what these books are. Old-fashioned Victorian blood-and-thunder. Actually, I wrote each one with a genuine cliché of melodrama right at the heart of it, on purpose: the priceless jewel with a curse on it – the madman with a weapon that could destroy the world – the situation of being trapped in a cellar with the water rising – the little illiterate servant girl from the slums of London who becomes a princess . . . And I set the stories up so that each of those stock situations, when they arose, would do so naturally and with the most convincing realism I could manage. (Philip Pullman’s own website) 

Philip Pullman is the author of almost thirty books but is best known for his trilogy, His Dark Materials, which has sold over 7 million copies in 37 languages. He has won several writing awards including the 2001 Whitbread Book of the Year for The Amber Spyglass, the third part of the trilogy.

For more background information and in-depth analysis of Pullman’s books, see Tony Watkins’ Dark Matter: A thinking fan’s guide to Philip Pullman (


  1. If you have read His Dark Materials before The Ruby in the Smoke, did this book meet your expectations or disapopint you? Why?

  2. In the quotation from Philip Pullman above, he says he tried to make the central cliché form a natural and realistic part of the story. Do you think he succeeded in this? Which elements of the story are most/least believable?

  3. How does Philip Pullman create a sense of mystery, intrigue and suspense in The Ruby in the Smoke?

  4. Why is Sally a good heroine? How would you describe her character? Who else would you call a hero/heroine in this story? Why?

  5. What first drew Sally to Jim Taylor and Frederick Garland? What characteristics made them such good friends to Sally?

  6. What values do these main characters live by?

  • Sally Lockhart

  • Jim Taylor

  • Frederick Garland

  • Mrs Holland

  • Matthew Bedwell

Which values does Pullman suggest are important? Why?

  1. Whose lives are affected by opium in this story? How?

  2. What are the similarities and differences between Matthew Bedwell and his twin brother? What does Pullman communicate through this?

  3. Christianity was a major part of Victorian life, but is largely absent from The Ruby in the Smoke. There are two obviously religious characters, Mrs Rees (Sally’s aunt) and the Reverend Nicholas Bedwell. How do these two contrast each other? What makes the difference?

  4. Why was finding out the truth so important to Sally? Why is the truth better than falsehood even when it is very painful, as it was for Sally?

Author: Tony Watkins
© Copyright: Tony Watkins 2004