BY GASLIGHT (2016)
By Steven Price
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 752 pages
By Gaslight is an intriguing–if overly long–mystery from the pen of Canadian writer Steven Price (The Anatomy of Keys, 2006). It is a tale of guilt, obsession, and intuition with William Pinkerton (1846-1923) of the infamous detective agency at its heart. Price tells his tale from two points of view: Pinkerton's and that of Adam Foole, a member of England's "flash trade," a colloquialism for grifters, pick pockets, and thieves.
The year is 1885 and Pinkerton is in London following a clue that it is there he will find Edward Shade, a man with whom his father Allan (1819-1884) had dealings. What sort of dealings is unclear, though William suspects that Shade is a notorious criminal whom his father wished to bring to justice. Others, including Scotland Yard director John Shore, think he was a mere figment of Allan's imagination, and still others–including Sally Porter, an ex-slave Allan helped to freedom, tell William that Shade was just a boy who was killed in the Civil War. What begins as a son's effort to come to terms with the death of a powerful father takes a gruesome turn when William's supposed line to Shade, Mary* Reckitt, leaps into the Thames when he approaches her and then turns up days later, dismembered.
If you suspect by now that By Gaslight has Freudian undertones, you are correct. Add to your metaphor list numerous references to William brandishing his Colt pistol like a penis substitute. Mainly, though, this novel feels like a mash up of Wilkie Collins, Victor Hugo, and Arthur Conan Doyle–especially the latter, with the elusive (or is he fictional?) Shade as William's psychological Moriarty, and Mary as akin to Irene Adler for both Pinkerton and Foole, who William thinks may be Shade. Price takes us to London's seedy underbelly, especially the area around Embankment–now a posh tourist destination, but then a stinking dock area populated by criminals, the pox-ridden poor, rough workmen, squalid eateries, foul tenements, women of easy virtue, and dangerous taverns. This is a novel in which you expect the fog, miasmic vapors, and blood to ooze off the pages. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in scenes in which Pinkerton and Foole descend into London's sewers. (I half expected Jean Valjean to appear in one of the tunnels.)
What are Pinkerton and Foole doing in those tunnels together? It's complicated, but let's just say that each has his own reason for solving Mary's murder. Plus, Foole might just be your garden variety clever, but non-dangerous, grifter. Or he might be what he claims: an importer of ostrich feathers, the employer of hulking ex-criminal Japheth Fludd,* and benefactor to former street urchin Molly. Alone, these elements would make for a fat novel, but Price also takes us back and forth in time and place: from the 1860s to 1913 and to the American Civil War, South Africa, Europe, and the American Northwest.
Toss in also a diamond heist, spying, a balloon ascension, substitute father figures, betrayal, a stolen painting, and sociopathic behaviors. Whew! Price is an excellent writer, who makes battlefields, cut throat alleys, and gas- lighted streets come alive, but these additional elements are an awful lot to take in. I was never bored reading By Gaslight, but I was often exhausted! I admired the fact that Price did not excuse Pinkerton's obsession, nor did he neatly resolve ambiguities. But did the book need to be this long? Probably not.
Readers should also know–as Price is clear to point out–that this is not a historical novel. There was no Edward Shade, real or imaginary, nor are any of the other characters real in more than rudimentary way. (There was a John Shore, famous for investigating but failing to solve the Jack the Ripper murders. He did, however, solve the theft of a Thomas Gainsborough painting, which probably inspired Price to imagine the art heist in his novel.) Moreover, no one should glamorize any of the Pinkertons–their spy work during the Civil War notwithstanding, they were violent men whose agency ran roughshod over the U.S. Constitution. There was no more hated group in late 19th century America than the Pinkertons, a veritable private army-for-hire by Gilded Age robber barons seeking to crush labor unions or anyone else that dared question their might. (They're now mostly mall rent-a-cops and there's karmic justice in that!) Nor is there a lot of solid biographical information about William, so we don't know if he held tender thoughts for his family or, indeed, if he was the obsessive man Price makes him out to be.
It is not a novelist's job to write history–merely to tell a good story. This is a very good story, indeed. In my view, it would have been an even better one pared back at the insistence of a tough developmental editor. It's well worth reading as is, but you might want to save it for long winter's nights; it will take much longer to plow through than a drifted driveway.
*I was sent an advance review copy in which Reckitt is always "Mary" and Japheth's last name is spelled "Fludd." I notice references to "Charlotte" Reckitt and Japheth "Flood" in other reviews, but I cannot say whether edits were made before publication, or if other reviewers are in error.