Sally Lockhart has used her head for numbers to start up a consulting firm where she gives people financial advice. When an elderly teacher she's advised loses all her savings after putting all her money into a shipping company Sally told her was a sound investment, Sally is determined to find out what happened. She is reluctant to ask her friend Frederick Garland for help, even though he now mainly works as a private investigator, as Fred would like nothing more than to marry her, and Sally's really not sure she wants to give up her independence and business and become a wife.
Fred and Jim have a case involving a magician wanting protection from some very sinister underworld thugs, and as they start investigating, it turns out that the case of the threatened conjurer is closely connected to Sally's investigation into the failing shipping company, and the formidable and sinister Swedish tycoon Carl Bellman seems to be the very dangerous mastermind behind all of it. He wants to marry a young and innocent noblewoman, and seems capable of using any means to rid himself of anyone who might get in his way.
This is the second book in the young adult mystery series about Sally Lockhart, but the books work perfectly fine as stand alone novels. Since [b:The Ruby in the Smoke|114982|The Ruby in the Smoke (Sally Lockhart, #1)|Philip Pullman|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1266475216s/114982.jpg|1128656], Sally has gone to Cambridge and got an education (but not a degree, as these were still not granted to women), invested heavily in the Garland photography business and used her organisational skills to make them successful and profitable. She's started her own business, and made a name for herself. The situation between her and Fred is decidedly tense, as she's rejected his marriage proposals more than once, and he's growing more and more hurt and frustrated.
Fred's frustration, and criticism of Sally, that she's brilliant, but cold and rather callous, is absolutely true, yet to a modern reader it's very clear why Sally might have misgivings about marriage. Even in the late Victorian age, her business, property, money and independence would all become subject to Fred's whims if she allowed him to become her husband. Yet she clearly loves him, and hates the pain she's causing him. The rocky nature of their relationship, and the gradual way they manoeuvre through it, to find a resolution, is one of the things that held my interest the most.
That's not to say that the interconnected mysteries aren't engaging. Bellman, the extremely wealthy and dangerous businessman who's none too happy about Sally, Fred and Jim's investigation into his affairs. At first, it's not clear how the two cases are related, but as the industrious young people keep investigating, it becomes clear that Bellman has his fingers in a lot of pies, and that there are reasons why he won't hesitate to threaten, injure or even have people killed to avoid his schemes being revealed.
I was all set to give this book four stars, when events in the last third of the book went a lot darker than I was expecting from a young adult book, and [a:Pullman|3618|Philip Pullman|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1365040302p2/3618.jpg] upset me so much that I just couldn't enjoy the story as much anymore. I'm sure he had his reasons for doing what he did, but I'm not sure it was necessary, and I wish the resolution of the story had been accomplished differently.