Philip Pullman, The Shadow in the North (Point, 1999)
"His prominent eyes were direct and disconcerting. They gave no hint of mood, humour or temper; they rarely blinked, yet they weren't dead; they were electrically intense."
According to its publishing history, this book was first available under a slightly different title in 1986. The best part of two decades later, its author is now widely considered as among the finest childrens authors of our time, most famously for the series known collectively as His Dark Materials. The Shadow In The North is the second book in the Sally Lockhart quartet, but can be read as a stand-alone title. On his excellent Web site, Pullman describes the quartet as "historical thrillers, old-fashioned Victorian blood-and-thunder. Deliberately written with a genuine cliché of melodrama right at the heart of it, on purpose." The cliché at the heart of this book is a weapon that could change the world. But, the tremendously convincing characters with whom Pullman populates his story, and their sheer force of life, rapidly renders the cliché irrelevant.
"And she clutched the little tin box to her breast and hugged it, rocking it back and forth in anguish like a mother with her dying child. Sally could hardly bear it; and all the time a cold little voice inside her head said, And when have you ever loved like this."
Sally Lockhart is a Financial Consultant, and her sometimes boyfriend, Frederick Garland, is a photographer, who is also a part-time private detective. Pullman takes what may at first glance seem like an uninspiring pair, and weaves a story which is mysterious, cinematic, touching and exciting. Above all, he makes every one of the cast matter, both to each other and to the reader. There are scenes in this book which even the hardest cynic will find touching, for the simple reason that they come across as real. Running behind the plot are themes of love, loyalty and loss, portrayed in ways that provide near perfect examples of their meaning. For those older readers, who have left childhood behind and experienced some of these things first hand, the impact is significantly magnified. These cleverly woven plot elements combine with the rough and tumble to give the characters an intensity which most writers struggle to attain. Even Sally's dog, Chaka, described as a cross between a bloodhound, a Great Dane and a werewolf, has depth.
"This enormous enterprise millions of pounds, vast intricacies of organisation and supply and economy, the secret connivance of great governments, with hundreds if not thousands of lives directly involved in it; all moved with a momentum infinitely greater than anything she could bring against it. That didn't matter."
Crime, conspiracy, murder, politics, stage magic to rival that of Jasper Maskelyne, Victorian fisticuffs, the Hopkinson Self-Regulator, and a super-weapon in the hands of a Scandinavian madman! These are the elements of the main plot in which Sally Lockhart and her friends take on the might of industrialist Axel Bellmann. It's a wonderfully literate story, economically told in well under 300 pages, by a master craftsman. If the job of a novelist included gunfights, Pullman would leave most of his competition dead in the dust.