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Review: Steven Price’s By Gaslight pulls out all the stops

Steven Price’s novel By Gaslight follows detective William Pinkerton as he searches for a master criminal in 1885 London.

Title
By Gaslight
Author
Steven Price
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
McClelland & Stewart
Pages
731
Price
$36
Year
2016

Steven Price's debut novel, 2011's Into That Darkness, was a taut thriller set in modern-day Victoria, in the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake. But, By Gaslight, his remarkable second novel, is the Big One indeed: a mighty steam engine of a thriller that pulls out all the stops, cutting through fog-shrouded London in 1885 – and spanning five decades and half the globe, besides – as America's most-feared detective hunts down a master criminal whose existence has been intertwined with his own in ways that he can scarcely begin to imagine.

The detective is William Pinkerton, whose recently deceased father was indeed that Pinkerton: Allan, the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. He has come to London – which he loathes as a city whose "cobbled streets were filthy even to a man whose business was filth" – on the trail of an elusive thief known as Edward Shade. Shade is more myth than man, as the quest begins: not a man "so much as a shadow, an echo of a man who may never have existed." But Shade obsessed Pinkerton pere for decades, and now the obsession has passed to the son.

William is half-myth himself, at least to the criminal underworld: "a wisp, a rumour, a creature of nightmare walking the flash world, frightening all." The hunt draws him into an uneasy alliance with Adam Foole, a thief and con artist with an obsessive quest of his own: he has returned to London in search of his lost love, a grifter named Charlotte Reckitt. As the quest twists and snakes through the metropolis – and deep into the past – it grows evident that Foole, too, has been shaped by a connection to Allan Pinkerton, dating back to the old man's days as a spymaster in the American Civil War.

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An award-winning poet, Price has a gift for the telling detail; this novel is a feast of language. A corrupt solicitor has "hard little eyes like the heads of nails, creased in the folds of his face, as if driven in"; gazing across the Thames toward the Albert Embankment, the detective sees "the silhouettes of lampposts with arms upraised like crucified thieves."

Price's ear for Victorian underworld slang is keen, give or take the odd glitch (his cracksmen and magsmen seem to take "the beak" to refer to constables, not magistrates). But overall, By Gaslight wears its erudition with flair and admirable lightness. The novel abounds in exhilarating set-pieces – a seance that takes an alarming turn; an untethered balloon ride over a Civil War slaughter; the near-obligatory descent into Bazalgette's sewers – and a supporting cast of vividly conjured grotesques.

Price cheekily invites comparison to such monuments as The Woman in White and The Moonstone, when a Chief Inspector disparages an underling as "a reader of sensation novels … That Wilkie Collins and the like." And indeed the clockwork of the storytelling is intricate and ingenious. I found myself fighting the temptation to flip ahead to the end of chapters, where (sure enough!) exquisite reveals and reversals awaited – no small feat in a novel that never sacrifices integrity for payoff.

Despite the skill of the storytelling, though, By Gaslight does not set out to break new ground. Wilkie Collins was no Dickens as a literary artist, but he defined a narrative tradition. Ditto the likes of Conan Doyle – who makes a delightfully uncredited cameo appearance in By Gaslight as a "burly doctor from Edinburgh" who is fascinated by spiritualism and fed up with "detective stories dependent on the foolishness of the criminal."

The narrative touches on themes relating to grief and loss, and the relationship of sons to fathers. There are nods as well to the nature of truth and storytelling, the unreliability of memory, and the conundrum of appearance and reality. But it is difficult to say what these add up to, in the end. The novel – for all of its force and ingenuity – struggles to reach beyond its own specifics.

But those specifics are splendid, nonetheless. And it is a tribute to Price's skill and power that we never – well, almost never – pause to ask whether the novel really needed every last one of its nearly 750 exquisitely crafted pages.

Ian Weir is the author of the novels Daniel O'Thunder and Will Starling.

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