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Summer Reading: An excerpt from Steven Price’s new novel By Gaslight

Title
By Gaslight
Author
Steven Price

He was the oldest son.

He wore his black moustaches long in the manner of an outlaw and his right thumb hooked at his hip where a Colt Navy should have hung. He was not yet forty but already his left knee went stiff in a damp cold from an explod­ing Confederate shell at Antietam. He had been sixteen then and the shrapnel had stood out from his knee like a knuckle of extra bone while the dirt heaved and sprayed around him. Since that day he had twice been thought killed and twice come upon his would-be killers like an avenging spectre. He had shot twenty-three men and one boy outlaws all and only the boy's death did not trouble him. He entered banks with his head low, his eyebrows drawn close, his huge menacing hands empty as if fixed for strangling. When he lurched aboard crowded street­cars men instinctively pulled away and women followed him with their eyelashes, bonnets tipped low. He had not been at home more than a month at a stretch for five years now though he loved his wife and daughters, loved them with the fear a powerful man feels who is given to breaking things. He had long yellow teeth, a wide face, sunken eyes, pupils as dark as the twist of a man's intestines.

So.

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He loathed London. Its cobbled streets were filthy even to a man whose business was filth, who would take a saddle over a bed and huddle all night in a brothel's privy with his Colt drawn until the right arse stumbled in. Here he had seen nothing green in a month that was not holly or a cut bough carted in from a countryside he could not imagine. On Christmas he had watched the poor swarm a man in daylight, all clutched rags and greed; on New Year's he had seen a lady kick a watercress girl from the step of a carriage, then curse the child's blood spotting her laces. A rot ate its way through London, a wretchedness older and more brutal than any he had known in Chicago.

He was not the law. No matter. In America there was not a thief who did not fear him. By his own measure he feared no man living and only one man dead and that man his father.

It was a bitter January and that father six months buried when he descended at last into Bermondsey in search of an old opera­tive of his father's, an old friend. Wading through the night's fog, another man's blood barnacling his knuckles, his own busi­ness in London nearly done.

He was dressed like a gentleman though he had lost his gloves and he clutched his walking stick in one fist like a cudgel. A stain spotted his cuffs that might have been soot or mud but was not either. He had been waiting for what passed for morn­ing in this miserable winter and paused now in a narrow alley at the back of Snow Fields, opera hat collapsed in one hand, frost creaking in the timbers of the shopfronts, not sure it had come. Fog spilled over the cobblestones, foul and yellow and thick with coal fumes and a bitter stink that crusted the nos­trils, scalded the back of the throat. That fog was everywhere, always, drifting through the streets and pulling apart low to the ground, a living thing. Some nights it gave off a low hiss, like steam escaping a valve.

Six weeks ago he had come to this city to interrogate a woman who last night after a long pursuit across Blackfriars Bridge had leaped the railing and vanished into the river. He thought of the darkness, the black water foaming outward, the slapping of the Yard sergeants' boots on the granite setts.

He could still feel the wet scrape of the bridge bollards against his wrists.

She had been living lawful in this city as if to pass for respectable and in this way absolve herself of a complicated life but as with anything it had not helped. She had been calling herself LeRoche but her real name was Reckitt and ten years earlier she had been an associate of the notorious cracksman and thief Edward Shade. That man Shade was the one he really hunted and until last night the Reckitt woman had been his one certain lead. She'd had small sharp teeth, long white fingers, a voice low and vicious and lovely.

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The night faded, the streets began to fill. In the upper windows of the building across the street a pale sky glinted, reflected the watery silhouettes below, the passing shadows of the early horses hauling their wagons, the huddled cloth caps and woollens of the outsides perched on their sacks. The iron-shod wheels chittering and squeaking in the cold. He coughed and lit a cigar and smoked in silence, his small deep-set eyes predatory as any cutthroat's.

After a time he ground the cigar under one heel and punched out his hat and put it on. He withdrew a revolver from his pocket and clicked it open and dialled through its chambers for something to do and when he could wait no longer he hitched up one shoulder and started across.

If asked he would say he had never met a dead nail that didn't want to go straight. He would say no man on the blob met his own shadow and did not flinch. He would run a hand along his unshaved jaw and glower down at whatever reporter swayed in front of him and mutter some unprintable blasphemy in flash dialect and then he would lean over and casually rip that page from the reporter's ring-coil notebook. He would say lack of education is the beginning of the criminal underclass and both rights and laws are failing the country. A man is worth more than a horse any day though you would never guess it to see it. The cleverest jake he'd ever met was a sharper and the kindest jill a whore and the world takes all types. Only the soft-headed think a thing looks like what it is.

In truth he was about as square as a broken jaw but then he'd never met a cop any different so what was the problem and whose business was it anyway.

He did not go directly in but slipped instead down a side alley. Creatures stirred in the papered windows as he passed. The alley was a river of muck and he walked carefully. In openings in the wooden walls he glimpsed the small crouched shapes of children, all bones and knees, half dressed, their breath pluming out before them in the cold. They met his eyes boldly. The fog was thinner here, the stink more savage and bitter. He ducked under a gate to a narrow passage, descended a crooked wooden staircase, and entered a nondescript door on the left.

In the sudden stillness he could hear the slosh of the river, thickening in the runoffs under the boards. The walls creaked, like the hold of a ship.

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That rooming house smelled of old meat, of water-rotted wood. The lined wallpaper was thick with a sooty grime any cinderman might scrape with a blade for half a shilling. He was careful not to touch the railing as he made his way upstairs. On the third floor he stepped out from the unlit stairwell and counted off five doors and at the sixth he stopped. Out of the cold now his bruised knuckles had begun to ache. He did not knock but jigged the handle softly and found it was not locked. He looked back the way he had come and he waited a moment and then he opened the door.

Excerpted from By Gaslight by Steven Price. Copyright © 2016 Steven Price. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

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A Q&A with Steven Price

By Gaslight clocks in at, oh, 750-odd pages. Can you sum it up in a sentence?

Hmm. How about: A panoramic view of the Victorian age, By Gaslight shifts from London to Cape Town to the American Civil War, following a detective's search to answer the question of who his father really was.

This excerpt paints a rather unflattering portrait of the city, but an extremely vivid one, too. What's your relationship like with London, and why is it such a rich setting a novelist?

I guess, to my mind, there are many Londons. London was arguably the first great modern world-city, a city that seemed bottomless, edgeless, a world in miniature with all the raw, beautiful, disturbing variety of humanity on display within it. People from all corners of the empire descended upon it; at every turn something new and strange could step from the shadows. And those shadows were everywhere. This excerpt is set in the grim riverside slums of Bermondsey; but By Gaslight wanders throughout the city, into the cleaner and wealthier streets as well.

We learn both nothing and everything about this man. What can you tell us about this unnamed character and how he fits into the novel?

This passage is taken from the opening pages. I wanted to leave this man unnamed at first, to let him walk the early pages of his book almost anonymous. He will prove to be William Pinkerton, the oldest son of Allan Pinkerton, legendary founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. This novel, in one sense, is the story of how William grapples with the recent death of his father, and the unfinished business of his life. Who was his father, really? It's a novel about our inheritance of grief, and about forgiveness, and learning to go on.

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