Philip Pullman is best known for His Dark Materials, currently perhaps best described - taking a leaf from Douglas Adams' oeuvre - as a fantasy trilogy in four parts; that is, there are three novels, and a lightweight but expensive fourth volume which may form a bridge to further writing.
The Sally Lockhart quartet, which pre-dates His Dark Materials in both its publishing and its setting, also consists of four books, although in this case none of them is a blatant attempt to cash in on the others. According to Pullman, there may also be more to come in this series, although the last one so far was published in 1994.
Sally is introduced as a sixteen year old orphan in the first book, The Ruby in the Smoke, and her fortunes and those of the friends she acquires are followed through The Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well and The Tin Princess. In fact, it's stretching the facts a little to call the fourth book a Sally Lockhart one, as she is absent from most of the book and is not really instrumental to the action.
However, let's not get ahead of ourselves. The year is 1872 and instant background is provided by a page of "Certain Items of Historical Interest". Mr. Pullman doesn't hang about getting into the action - in fact, he telegraphs* the shock event of the first chapter in the second paragraph, preceding its actual occurence by several pages.
Sally's father has died recently, there are some irregularities and no-one is answering any questions. As time goes by, it becomes clear that malevolent and initially mysterious criminal influences are working on Sally's life due to her father's business as a shipping agent.
As a result of these influences, Sally finds herself accepting help where she can get it, which in practice turns out to be from an office boy, a slightly down-at-heel photographer and his actress sister. It's the circles in which Sally moves from then on that are perhaps of most interest in establishing the flavour of these books.
Although the highest circles of society are touched upon at times - particularly in The Shadow in the North and The Tin Princess - Sally's friends are of lower middle or working class, her enemies are villains from the stews and slums or from business and industry. Sally's social standing is distinctly affected by these sometimes less than reputable relationships, but they are balanced to some extent by a social mobility which is granted by good fortune and good management in financial matters.
As the years go by - the second book is set six years on in 1878, the third in 1881 and the fourth in 1882 - Sally's fortunes go through a roller-coaster - or possibly a mangle! Pullman is not afraid to kill off major characters, or to inflict real discomfort and unpleasantness on others, but luckily he avoids the temptation to wallow which destroys so much realist writing.
Pullman is seen as a children's author, but as is the case with many of the better children's authors he denies this, saying that he writes for himself and just happens to write books that children read. I think that's likely to be an accurate assessment. He is an easy, fast-paced read with plenty going on; but on the other hand, he touches at various points on opium use, slum living, anti-Semitism, gang warfare, early socialism, and prostitution in a way which, while not likely to scare the horses, is not patronising either.
The Sally Lockhart books are unmistakeably modern writing, but owe a great (and acknowledged) debt to period story-telling. There are frequent references to penny dreadfuls, and The Tin Princess is an obvious homage to the The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau though it stands well in its own right.
I enjoyed these books; rather more than His Dark Materials in fact, which I'm afraid I regard as over-rated. They give a good feel for a version of Victorian London which would be very suitable for role-playing. They are largely realistic in style and content, with slight hints of mysticism in The Ruby in the Smoke and some low-key elements of scientific romance in The Shadow in the North.
"Philip Pullman. Is he the best storyteller ever?" Observer. No. But there are many worse, and the Sally Lockhart books are worth a read.
* No pun intended, although the telegraph had been invented some decades before by Samuel Morse.