By Gaslight is the newest novel of Canadian poet Steven Price and it’s a prodigious work. At 730 pages I could have done with a portable lectern to hold it whilst reading it. Once I had picked it up I was captivated. The characters, story and settings are vivid, sympathetic, well-formed and enthralling. If I did not already know that Steven Price was an acclaimed poet by the bio that accompanied the book I would have guessed as much after a few pages.
The story concerns William Pinkerton, son of Allan Pinkerton founder of the Pinkerton detective agency. Pinkerton, a hulking Civil War veteran, is stalking the streets of Victorian London looking for a lady called Charlotte Reckitt, who he believes is the key to finding one Edward Shade and elusive and some believe mythical master criminal. Allan Pinkerton was obsessed with Shade and went to his grave having failed to apprehend him. William inherits his father’s mania and becomes fixated on finding out what happened between Shade and his father. Some of Pinkerton’s friends and associates think that Shade did not exist, that he was a made-up person or a cover for a criminal gang.
The descriptions of Victorian London are vivid and poetic. Smoke, fog, smog, grime, dirt, soot and effluent are in abundance. People and buildings appear dimly in orange or brown lights and are then lost as the smog closes around them.
Price’s writing style is measured and allows readers to get to grips with characters and plot themselves without being spoon-fed. There are slow-burning introductions to characters. Unusually, no speech marks are used but it does not affect the reading experience, I quite liked it.
Pinkerton is not the only person interested in Charlotte Reckitt. Adam Foole, an ageing entrepreneur, gambler and criminal has travelled to Liverpool from the U.S. after receiving a letter from Reckitt. Foole is accompanied by a young girl named Molly and a gigantic shaggy man named Japheth Fludd to whom he is friend, boss and family.
For his part, Pinkerton is assisted by his father’s old associates and Scotland Yard detectives. One of my favourite characters was Inspector Blackwell, a diligent detective with a love of puns. Moments of dark humour light up the grimy London atmosphere. On examining a decapitated head and dismembered torso at a mortuary, Pinkerton’s asks ‘What happened to her hair?’
The story rolls backwards and forwards between Pinkerton’s present investigation and his past life as a Union soldier and young detective assisting his father’s business. We are also given insights into Adam Foole’s early life and relationship with Charlotte Reckitt. The scenes switch from London to take in the U.S and South Africa. All feel vivid and real.
Pinkerton and Foole’s mutual interest in Charlotte Reckitt brings them in contact with each other and their relationship is at turns one of common interest and mutual mistrust. Foole’s shady dealings are the antithesis of what Pinkerton represents but it is Pinkerton who often appears as a bully who uses suspect methods to persecute those who stand in his way of discovering Edward Shade.
Some of the main themes of the book are obsession, the treatment of children and women, loyalty, betrayal, revenge, how much we can know people and how much they really know themselves.
Criticisms? None of note. A comb of parlour matches is described in the early pages but I suspect they would not have existed in Victorian England at this time. After landing in Liverpool, there is talk of ‘travelling up to London’ but I would think that ‘travelling down’ would be more appropriate. However, these are of no consequence.
By Gaslight is an exceptional, compelling and very satisfying novel that I would recommend highly.