Monday, June 13, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Shadow in the North'

The Book: The Shadow in the North (The Sally Lockhart Mysteries, Book 2)

The Author: Philip Pullman

How I Found It: My interest in the film adaptations of The Ruby in the Smoke and this book, the second novel of the quartet, led me to read the books.

The Review: Philip Pullman. Oh, Philip Pullman, damn to the depths your ability to get me invested in your fictional characters, only to throw some heartwrenching twist in that makes me cry even as I'm turning the pages. As I said in my review of Ruby, I love how I can read these books now, at 20, and be taken right back to my fascination with Pullman's works that I had at age 12. He is truly an author whose works transcend whichever age they were meant for.

It is the year 1878, and Sally Lockhart has defied Victorian sensibilities and gone into business for herself, working as a financial consultant and a partner in Garland and Lockhart, the photographic business introduced in the first book. Sally is faced with two dilemmas: a visit from a client who has lost all her money after Sally told her to invest in shipping, and the pertinacity of Frederick Garland, who would like Sally to marry him.

Each problem has thrown Sally off balance. The first is a true puzzle, as Sally believes that the firm her client invested in might have sank its ships deliberately--but why, since there's no evidence of insurance fraud? As for the latter problem, Sally simply cannot say yes. The law states that a married woman would have to give over her money and property to her husband, and Sally is not ready to cede any control over to a man, not even one she trusts as much as Frederick.

Meanwhile, Sally's friend and Frederick's partner in the detective business, Jim Taylor, has come across a puzzle of his own. The magician Alistair Mackinnon is being pursued by murderous thugs, and he claims to have witnessed, via his psychic powers, a murder. A medium, Nellie Budd, seems to confirm this in a trance. Somehow, the sinking of the Anglo-Baltic ships and the murder are related, and both trails seem to lead back to one person: the powerful industrialist Axel Bellman. Sally, Frederick, and Jim are determined to reach the core of the mystery, but Bellman is an intimidating foe, and before the case is over, Sally will have endured losses greater than ever before.

To begin with, I can say that my, is this book complicated. I was reading part of it while driving with my mother, and I had to recite the connections and clues aloud just to straighten them out in my mind. It got a little easier towards the end, when everyone's motives became clear, but it was a real headache at times! I can see how young readers would probably get lost in the maze of names and motivations.

But oh, if it's not absolutely worth it for the characters. Sally is an amazing heroine, self-assured and thoroughly modern, and she is not quailed by threats to her reputation and even threats from hitmen. One of my favorite scenes in the book as well as the movie is when Axel Bellman tries to threaten her by spreading subtle hints that she might be a prostitute. Sally never caves, and even tells her landlord shame on him when he believes it. Having a ruined reputation in Victorian times would be a disaster, but Sally never lets that stand in the way of her pursuit for justice.

The other three important characters here are Frederick Garland, Jim Taylor, and Axel Bellman. Frederick gets more screentime than he did in the first book, and his relationship with Sally teeters on the edge of something more. The relationship between them is really well done; in my opinion, it's just as or maybe even more emotionally involving than that of Will and Lyra, the lovers from Pullman's The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. He is shown to be a competent detective with compassion for the people who end up involved in his cases, as well as someone who, though he might fight with Sally and say the wrong thing in the heat of the moment, loves her dearly. Jim, my favorite from The Ruby in the Smoke, is even more hilariously endearing here. He grumbles darkly about the Lyceum Theatre not accepting his melodramas for production, carries around brass knuckles to beat the villains with, and displays a tender attachment to Frederick and Sally that's really on display in the last fifty pages or so. And there's Bellman, our villain. He is not as outright dastardly as the last book's Mrs. Holland, but he raises the stakes so much higher.

(An extra special shoutout to Chaka, Sally's massive dog. Chaka pretty much made the book for me! Sally believes him to be one of the only people she really loves in the world, and Chaka proves himself to be truly devoted to his mistress. He is the most badass dog I have seen in most of my literary experience!)

I think I liked this blend of Victorian potboiler and modern sensibilities even more than the last one. Sally is older now and dealing with more adult problems--running a business, receiving marriage proposals, and defending everything she loves. It's even easier to relate to this Sally than the first book's, at least to me, someone who's just about her age. Philip Pullman's choice to incorporate modern issues in a Victorian context makes the reader better able to understand and invest in the situations, and it certainly worked for me!

The movie version was just as good, and I can't decide if I liked it better than the first. (I will say, however, that apparently one crucial scene was cut by PBS, and it was a bit irritating. The Sherlock DVDs restore the cuts made by PBS, but apparently they hadn't implemented this practice a few years ago. Oh, well, off to scour Youtube.) Billie Piper gets a bit more to do, action-wise, as Sally, and she's really dazzling in the final confrontation with Bellman. She's the perfect mix of self-assurance and emotional vulnerability; as odd as it sounds, her connection to Chaka gives us one of the first glimpses behind her mask of confidence is someone who feels very deeply. Jared Harris, as Bellman, was a good match for her strong will. He reminded me (granted, in a substantially less creepy way) of Bjurman in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Harris struck a nice balance between affable and outright evil.

JJ Feild and Matt Smith played off their partnership well, and there were little touches that made the movie for me. Feild's facial expressions as he hooked up Nellie Budd to the wires of the camera in an early scene perfectly captured Fred from the book. He and Billie Piper played their confrontations and love scene exccllently; I could buy into both completely. (Look at one of the opening scenes, when Frederick calls out Sally for leaving Rosa's wedding to meet with a client. Doesn't it sound like a modern quarrel?) And I laughed out loud when Mackinnon turns to leave the office after telling his story and Jim is scoffing in the background and mockingly wiggling his fingers in a parody of spiritualism. Matt Smith can be a goof, but it worked so well here. I especially liked the movie's choice to have Jim be active in the final confrontation at the factory; his leg is broken in the books, but here he is the one who goes after Sally and makes sure to get her out alive.

Some changes and cuts were made to the material, but not that many, and besides the utterly baffling choice to remove that one crucial scene (saying which scene would spoil it), the adaptation was very well-done and one I'd definitely watch again in the future. I wish the BBC would have adapted the other two books; the plans appear to have fallen through, but I would have loved to see more of the cast embodying these adventures. As it is, I'm taking a short break from Sally, but I'll be getting to The Tiger in the Well and The Tin Princess soon enough, I'm sure! The book and film adaptation earn another set of high recommendations from me!

No comments:

Post a Comment