As a piece of quality literature for stretching bright readers The Ruby in the Smoke has everything: superbly twisty plot, great characterisation, a luminous historical setting, page turning readability, wonderful writing. It is however a tad violent.
Sally Lockhart has lost her father at sea, and has only a few pieces of information as to what has happened. Within the first few pages she utters one of these snippets to a colleague of her father's and he falls down dead. (How very Wilkie Collins!) The plot has us as ensnared as Sally herself.
On her travels she meets with Jim the office boy, Frederick Garland a photographer and his actress sister Rosa, their manservant "Trembler" with the iffy past (how very Charles Dickens!) and the child Adelaide. Together they solve the mystery of Sally's father's death, and deal with threats haunting Sally herself, with help of a drug addict sailor and a boxing vicar.
The characters and relationships are wonderful. "Skulking bankrupt!" yells Rosa at Frederick, "Howling termagant!" shrieks Frederick at his sister, before turning to introduce her to Sally in all good humour. Robust Trembler and timid rescued child Adelaide make up the rest of this strange household. Jim the office boy is dogged in his loyalty to Sally and the others in their adventures, after being dedicated to sensational thrillers all his short life.
The resolution is very satisfactory but includes something of a hanging thread, that is both realistic (life rarely ties things up neat and tidy) and leads to the other books of this quartet. There is not a clear cut happy ending. I should add that despite the subject matter this a remarkably light narrative: the subject is dark but the tone is clean and crisp and light. The good characters shared a flawed warmth, and the narrative is often very witty.
Violence: lots and lots. Fights and kidnappings, broken bones and more. Quite high levels of gruesomeness and because Pullman is so good, the reader is pulled firmly into these situations. The queasy will feel ill, and the timid, terrified. The fight where Frederick and Jim try to defend Adelaide ends with both of them taking quite graphic beatings, and it is not so much the peril involved as the superb descriptions of pain as broken arms give way when weight is put on them, that might un-nerve your readers. The quality of Pullman's writing makes the violence so much worse as you can feel the effects.
Peril: lots. See above. Sally is often in danger and her friends too get hurt. Mrs Holland and her henchman Mr Berry are pretty scary as the villains. They menace in quite an adult way.
Death: apart from Sally's father, several other characters die or disappear. It is wise not to get too attached to anyone!
Drugs: one character is an opium addict and this is a major part of the plot. His downfall through drugs is very clear, so although there is much on drugs, it is not at all moral ambiguous in this case. Less morally clear is the fact that Sally has faint memories of a significant event in her childhood. When she accidentally breathes opium the memories become clearer and more significantly Sally wonders whether she should deliberate use the drug to access the memories. In the end she does. This is more morally ambiguous than the descriptions of the drug addict sailor.
Relationships: Sally is obviously becoming attached to Frederick and Jim has a more juvenile crush on Rosa. Sally's feelings are sweetly and subtly handled.
Overall: this is a well written historical thriller and as such it thrills well! It is obviously intended for a YA audience so this is no horror fest, but it is a very effective way to scare yourself silly in a good way. Beware the nausea levels for some of the fights. Beware the drugs if you don't want to have an extended conversation with your child/class/book group about historical context, Victorian opium addictions, and how this relates to the modern world of drug use. Sally is a wonderful, believable, carefully drawn character and it is a pleasure to spend the book with her. I loved this book, and it made me sad that I didn't read it when it came out in 1985: at 13 years old this would have become my favourite book to date I'm sure.
Other reviews and resources:
The author's page on the book is here.
Coffee Clef blog review.
Author DL Morrese 's review on his blog.
TES teaching resources page (you need to create a free account and log in to open the links).