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Philip Pullman – The Tiger in the Well

October 14, 2008

124. The Tiger in the Well by Philip Pullman (1991)
Sally Lockhart Mysteries, Book 3

Read my review of:
Book 1: The Ruby in the Smoke
Book 2: The Shadow in the North

Read By: Anton Lesser
Length: 13h 09m (416 pages)

Genre: Historical Fiction; Mystery

Started: 09 October 2008
Finished: 14 October 2008

Man she’s never met’s
trying to take her baby
and the law’s helping.

Summary: Picking up more than two years after the events of The Shadow in the North, the beginning of this book finds Sally Lockhart living a happy – if unconventional – Victorian life. She has a daughter, Harriet, whom she loves, good friends she can count on, and a successful financial consulting business. Then she’s served papers suing her for divorce and custody of their child from a Mr. Parrish – a man she’s never met, let alone married, and who certainly isn’t Harriet’s father. Parrish has a string of airtight evidence to show that they are married, however, and the law is clearly on his side. If Sally wants to keep her daughter, she must slip into the darker side of London, rife with poverty, disease, crime, socialist agitators, and a conspiracy designed to victimize Jewish immigrants, and keep herself and her daughter safe until she can figure out who Parrish is – and what he wants with her.

Review: I had given up on the Sally Lockhart series by the end of The Shadow in the North – I liked the characters quite a lot, the writing was excellent, and they evoked Victorian London in all of its damp, gritty, filthy glory. However, my problem was plotting – The Ruby in the Smoke had a well-built and exciting mystery but a terribly rushed denouement, and The Shadow in the North just bored me. However, a friend convinced me to read the rest of the series, and I’m so glad I did. The Tiger in the Well is easily the best of the three, with a fantastic plot that grabbed me right at the beginning, and didn’t let go until the end. Even though I figured out who the ultimate bad guy was relatively early on, that didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the novel at all. The sense of menace and suspense in this novel is palpable in practically every paragraph; it was terrifying watching Sally have her life dismantled around her, not by a villain by but the legal workings of the system, unable to turn to anyone for help and unable – by virtue of being a woman in a time when women’s rights were laughably nonexistant – to even help herself.

There’s also some deeper political and social commentary going on in the secondary sub-plots regarding immigration (particularly of Jews), socialism, and some degree of moral responsibility. It gets a smidge on the preachy side sometimes, but for the whole it was worked into the main story quite well. I listened to this book compulsively, finishing it in less than a week, and actually wanting to go do one of the more tedious parts of my job, just so I’d have an excuse to listen. Even though I was pretty sure I’d figured out the overarching mystery, I was intensely absorbed because the suspense is so well-built that I simply couldn’t see a way for Sally to save herself and for everything to turn out all right. And, to be fair, there’s a deus-ex-machina-element to the ending, but not as much as one might think – and all of the various subplots resolve into an extremely satisfying end. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: This book could actually work fairly well as a stand-alone, although of course your understanding is going to be deeper if you read the series in order. The Tiger in the Well is far and away the best of the bunch, though. Recommended for all those who like historical fiction and/or Philip Pullman’s writing.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: PhiloBiblos
Did I miss your review? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: One sunny morning in the autumn of 1881, Sally Lockhart stood in the garden and watched her little daughter play, and thought that things were good.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. October 14, 2008 10:16 pm

    This sounds interesting! I’ve never read one of his books before.

  2. October 15, 2008 7:18 am

    I’ve had this series languishing in TBR purgatory for quite some time. It’s good to know, whenever I finally get around to reading them, that it’s worth reading on.

  3. October 15, 2008 8:24 am

    Nicki, how cool is that when the third book in a series is the best??? IMO that is rarely the case. You’ve got me intrigued about this series now.

    Okay, off to look up the word denouement :)

  4. October 15, 2008 8:43 am

    Ladytink – Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is (deservedly) his most famous, but I think he’s an all-around good writer.

    tanabata – I need to write the friend who recommended that I keep going and thank her! You might have better luck with the second book than I did – while most reviews I’ve seen agree the third’s the best, a lot of people weren’t as bored by the second as I was.

    Shana – I was using denouement to mean “the part where they explain the entire mystery” – the “drawing-room whodunnit scene”, if you will. Properly, though, I think denouement is supposed to refer to the wrapping up of everything *after* the climactic moment.

  5. October 15, 2008 9:16 am

    Thanks for the review. This has always been a series I’ve been curious about.

  6. October 15, 2008 3:41 pm

    I’m really looking forward to reading this one! I know what you mean about figuring out the mystery but still being completely absorbed by the story. I felt more or less that way when I read The Ruby in the Smoke.

  7. October 15, 2008 6:32 pm

    bookchronicle – I think what’s impressed me most about this series is that Pullman’s ear for historical fiction is just as accurate as his ear for YA fantasy.

    Nymeth – Hmm, my main problem with The Ruby in the Smoke was that I felt like I couldn’t piece together the mystery from the clues they gave me, and instead there was just a character explicating the whole thing via monologue. Clearly you’re smarter than I am!

  8. October 19, 2008 1:51 pm

    I couldn’t agree with you more about ‘The Tiger in the Well’ being the best of this series. Be warned, ‘The Tin Princess’, which follows, is definitely the worst.

  9. October 20, 2008 4:28 pm

    Ann – Oh no! I’m such a completist at heart, it was a struggle giving up this series once… and now you’re saying I should do it again? The horror!

  10. May 9, 2010 8:02 am

    I never read your review of the Tiger in the well, till now. I’m glad we share the same feelings about it. Sally Lockhart is one of my favourite literary characters ever, but she never shone that much as in this last book in the trilogy. It’s a shame that people give up the series entirely after reading Shadow in the North, which was admittedly rather boring.
    I didn’t think it was preachy at all ,but then again, I never think books are preachy when I strongly agree with the points they are making!

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