Heather's Reviews > The Shadow in the North

The Shadow in the North by Philip Pullman
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's review
Aug 07, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction, kids-ya, mystery, library-books
Read from August 04 to 06, 2011

The Shadow in the North is the second of Pullman's Sally Lockhart mysteries, and I think it's better-written than The Ruby in the Smoke, or maybe I just liked it more because I already know the main characters. Sally, who's now twenty-two, is a partner in Garland & Lockhart's photograph studio and has also set up shop on her own as a financial consultant. Fred, a bit older, has found a passion for being a private detective (which is a bit weird/unexplained, since in the last book he was a photographic whiz kid, an artist and inventor of new photographic processes and tools). Jim, a few years younger than Sally, is Fred's partner in detecting, and also is trying to become a writer, and also works backstage in various music halls, all of which fits in with what we knew of Jim from the last book, in which he read lots of penny dreadfuls and was the one to solve part of the mystery before anyone else.

So: spring, 1878, a boat vanishes in the Baltic Sea. Later that year, one of Sally's clients comes to see her: this client, on Sally's advice, had invested in the firm that owned that vanished boat, and when the firm went under (some problem with the insurance on that missing ship, plus some other unexplained oddities in the firm's dealings), she lost all her money. Sally vows to get it back for her, and starts poking into the affairs of one Axel Bellmann, who was involved in that shipping company and who now seems to be at the head of some other shady business doings. Meanwhile, Jim meets a Scottish conjurer, Alistair Mackinnon, who's being threatened by some gentleman who are apparently in Bellmann's employment. The plot broadens to include not just the world of business, but music hall folks and spiritualists and mediums and high society and hired thugs. And in the midst of trying to solve the mystery, Sally and Fred are also trying to work out their own relationship: they're in love, but she's having a hard time admitting it, or understanding that being in love doesn't mean that the person you love never pisses you off, or that being in love needn't mean giving up her independence. At one point, Sally thinks this about Fred: "There were times when she felt she adored him, that no one could be more fascinating and brilliant and brave and funny; and there were times when she felt furious at him for wasting his talents fiddling with bits of machinery, or disguising himself and prowling about London with Jim, or generally behaving like a little boy who didn't know how to occupy himself (13-14)." But watching them play whist together, Jim can see more than Sally can: "This was what love ought to be like: playful and passionate and teasing, and dangerous, too, with sharp intelligence in it" (128).

I think the writing is more lyrical in this book than the last one: I loved this passage, about Mackinnon's conjuring act: the atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust it describes works nicely for the whole of the book, and came back to me in one of the closing scenes:
He didn't just perform tricks: he turned flowers into goldfish bowls, plucked cards from the empty air, and made solid silver candlesticks disappear just as ordinary magicians did. But the tricks weren't the end of his performance—they were the means. The end was the creation of a world. It was a world in which nothing was fixed, everything was changeable; in which identities merged and dissolved, qualities such as hard and soft and up and down and sorrow and joy changed into their opposites in the twinkling of an eye and became meaningless; and in which the only reliable guide was suspicion, the only constant theme mistrust. (73)

For all the lyricism, though, there's at least as much violence and brutality in this book, and while evil gets punished, Pullman doesn't let all the good guys come through unscathed, either. (view spoiler)

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