"The Ruby in the Smoke" was first published in 1985, and was the first of Philip Pullman's books to feature Sally Lockhart. It was adapted for television in 2006 by the BBC, with Billie Piper - formerly of Dr Who - playing Sally.
The book opens in October 1872, when Sally Lockhart is only sixteen years old and has recently been orphaned. She never knew her mother, and her father - a former officer in the British Army and co-owner of the shipping firm Lockhart & Selby - has drowned in Singapore on company business. Naturally, she had been very close to her father, who had also taken personal responsibility for her education . (As a result, she knew little of French, English Literature, Art and Music though few other young ladies would have matched her in military tactic, the affairs of the Stock Market, military tactics and book-keeping. His most useful advice, however, was probably "keep your powder dry"). Sally, who also suffers from an unpleasant recurring nightmare, now lives with Caroline Rees, a thoroughly dislikable aunt.
When we first meet her, Sally has recently received a cryptic letter. It warns her of something called the Seven Blessings, and that somebody called Marchbanks will help her. She first visits Lockhart & Selby's offices - there, she hopes to find out not only who Marchbanks is, but also what the Seven Blessings are. Unfortunately, the the firm's secretary - Mr Higgs - can't help her : he suffers a heart attack and dies the moment she asks the question. She doesn't have to wait too long for help, though : Marchbanks, a former army officer, and an ex-sailor called Bedwell are both looking for her - and they both have useful information. This information puts Sally on a collision course with a dangerous villain called Mrs Holland . Thankfully she will have help - most notably from Frederick Garland, his sister Rosa and Jim Taylor - a very resourceful office-boy at Lockhart & Selby's.
A short, easy and enjoyable read - though, given the constant references to opium use, it mightn't be to everyone's tastes.