Steven Price was one of my favourite professors when I was in university. I took a few courses with him, including a grammar class that remains one of the most practical courses I’ve ever studied. All that to say, I was biased to like By Gaslight before I even started it. However, I didn’t particularly enjoy Price’s first novel, Into the Darkness, so hopefully I wasn’t too biased! The good news is that the two books are extremely dissimilar and By Gaslight is well-deserving of the good press it’s received this year.
The book travels through the 19th century, the American Civil War, and Victorian London, even making a stop in South Africa. The central storyline – the “present” – is set in 1885 in London, where two very different Americans have recently arrived.
William Pinkerton, of Pinkerton Detective Agency is in London chasing a shadow, a man named Edward Shade, who he knows almost nothing about except that his father (recently deceased) searched for this man for years. Pinkerton is further than ever from finding Shade when his best lead jumps into the Thames. Adam Foole is a gentleman thief with a fluid, changing background. He’s returned to London, called back by a letter from the woman he loves and hasn’t spoken to in years. And whose body just washed up out of the river. Pinkerton and Foole’s paths quickly cross, including in some very unexpected ways. (And places – there’s a terrifically eery scene set in the sewers below London.)
Prices takes us into each man’s history, particularly their experiences in the American Civil War, and the mystery of Edward Shade is slowly revealed.
Like any 700+ page book, there is content here that could have been left out without greatly harming the plot. The story is heavily detailed and very descriptive, though mostly avoids feeling repetitive. Price is also a poet and it’s evident in his very visceral descriptions. The setting of industrial London is particularly vivid, in all its soot and grit. Price’s prose flows beautifully and when I read parts aloud to Pearl the sentences felt good in my mouth.
While By Gaslight requires an investment of time, I think it proves itself very worthwhile.