Published in 1990, for me this was the weakest book in the quadrilogy so far (I have one more volume still to read). Frederick is dead. Sally has had his child from their one brief dalliance right before he died, and it's this child, Harriet, who is at the heart of this story. Sally's closest friends and associates: Frederick's brother Webster Garland, Jim, and Charles are off in South America on a photo expedition.
What Sally doesn't know, but finds out very quickly, is that her foe from the first novel in the series has very carefully, sadistically, and expertly been putting in place her downfall, as she learns when divorce papers are served on her by a man named Arthur Parrish. This is a surprise to Sally because she has never even heard of Parrish, has never met him and has certainly never been married to him or to anyone else.
As she digs into the claims and accusations, Sally realizes that she has been set up in a way which will be very hard to fight, and especially so for a woman in that era. This situation is exacerbated, sadly, by the fact that the tough and capable Sally Lockhart from the previous two volumes is also dead. She has been replaced by a replica, exact in every detail except resolve and fortitude. This new Sally has the constitution of a wet biscuit, which is inexplicable. Why Pullman chose to do this to her is a mystery and a serious mistake.
The original Sally was not perfect by any means, but she did not let the fact that she was treated as a second class citizen (being a woman in Victorian times) get in the way of turning her life around in the first volume, or of taking down a dangerous and advantaged foe in the second. I know that here we have a child to consider, but to me this should have made Sally even more formidable, not less. That's not what we get.
The Sally here is weepy, lackluster, hesitant, nervous, distracted, aimless, clueless, and is pushed around by everyone she meets. It's sad to see a completely different person from the one we have loved in two successive volumes. Rather than stand up and fight, this sally effectively runs. Yes, she engages a solicitor, who in turn briefs a barrister to represent Sally in court, but both of these men, and particularly the barrister, are complete jerks. They aren't even willing to consider that the marriage never took place, and they treat her like a whore (the common term for a single mom in those days) and a victim.
Sally never once stands up to them much less fires them. Instead, she simply fails to turn up at her own trial, and of course loses - something she pretty much knew her barrister was going to do beforehand. She goes on the run with Harriet, which is ill-advised at best. In that era women, regardless of what they had or who they were before the marriage, became effectively the property of their husband once married, and he took possession of everything they owned and all of their children. They had no rights. Sally, therefore, as a now 'proven' wayward wife, lost everything. She knew this was coming yet took not a single step to counter it. She's not your Ruby in the Smoke sally, sorry to report.
Just as in the first novel, she's now penniless and on the street, this time with a very young child in tow. She could have transferred her ownership of her home and her business interests, and although that would have been challenged, it would have been something - a delaying tactic at least. What she could certainly have done is remove every penny from her back account, but she failed to even consider this, much less actually do it. Now her "husband' has everything and she has nothing.
Once again a man comes to her aid. He's a Jewish agitator who is also up against Parrish for his exploitation of Jewish immigrants. His associates give her shelter and hide her and Harriet from the police and Parrish. One of these, a man named Dan Goldberg, reveals to Sally that Parrish is a criminal who is running frauds and scams all over London, including houses of prostitution and exploitation of minorities. She learns from him that the man behind Parrish is known as Tzaddik, and it's he who is really doing all this to Sally, but Sally doesn't make the connection to a man named Lee with whom she had a run-in - and shot, but not fatally - back in book one, the events of which took place many years before those occurring in this volume.
Tzaddik is outright evil and to bring him down Sally takes a job in his house as a maid. he doesn't know what she looks like, and it all works out in the end, including Sally magically forgetting about the terrific romance she'd had with Frederick and having no problem shacking up with a different guy that she hardly knows. It's not a great story, and I cannot recommend it. The only thing which made me want to read volume four is that it's really a different story altogether, otherwise I would have quit right here.