Fiction Review by Daniel Perry

Steven Price, By Gaslight (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2016). Hardbound, 732 pp., $36.

By GaslightAfter leading his reader through more than seven hundred finely drawn pages, the author reminds us in a final note that we are not to look to this novel, his second, for historical truth. It’s a temptation hard to resist given that our hero is none other than real person William Pinkerton—son of detective agency founder Allan—and that 1885 London, Civil War-era Virginia and Ohio, and South African diamond mines live and breathe on the page via terminology, tools, and transportation modes long since out of use. Arthur Conan Doyle even implicitly walks onto the set, as Ian Weir notes in his Globe and Mail review—but so too does completely fictional lawyer Gabriel Utterson, narrator of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, now in the role of fifth-business legal counsel to the “flash”—the underworld criminals of the city, second protagonist Adam Foole among them.

Intentional or otherwise, Utterson’s occasional reappearances are as much a reminder to the reader as is the use of “gaslight” or a variant word in nearly every London-set chapter that, despite all the realistic detail (heavily researched, Price attests in a Hamilton Review of Books interview), this is artifice. The importance of illusion is further emphasized by two titles among the book’s ten sections, “Inventing the Devil” and “Men Who Do Not Exist.” Both refer to Edward Shade, the uncatchable foe who long bedevilled the elder Pinkerton before William inherited the case, and whom the younger, through his obsessive pursuit of detail, has inspirited in much the same manner that a reader comes to believe characters in a novel could be real, living people.

William and Foole arrive simultaneously in London from America and their parallel narratives intertwine when each learns the other is looking for Charlotte Reckitt. William believes she will lead him to Shade, and Foole because Charlotte, once his lover, has written to propose an art heist. This theft would rival their previous biggest score, diamonds pinched in South Africa with the assistance of Charlotte’s uncle, Martin, who is serving a long prison sentence and may need to be broken out later in the novel. I say, “may” because the novel is a detective story, too. To say much more about the plot would spoil the suspense Price achieves through atmosphere, style and structure: London is so perpetually damp and dark that we’re half-waiting for Jack the Ripper to jump out at any moment, and the sentences propel the reader forward by frequently using “and” where many would use a comma. The double alternation in the narratives—geographically, between five London-set sections and four extended South African and American flashback sections plus an Epilogue, as well as in the chapter-by-chapter switching of the lens between William and Foole in the London sections—is effective on this count as well: just after another tumbler has fallen into place, sometimes on the very last word of another London section, we learn more about the two protagonists before we rejoin them on their present, parallel quests.

Though much appreciated for the pacing of the novel, not to mention the still-excellent descriptions and action, the flashbacks unfortunately do not always add gravity or raise the stakes for the reader. The lost-love flashback involving Charlotte and Foole in South Africa does garner sympathy for him and his coterie, but Foole’s heartbreak may be well enough understood without it, and our appreciation of the derivation, if not also the depth of William’s obsession with Shade, is not much advanced when we see Allan Pinkerton pursue train robbers. This isn’t to say the flashbacks ought not to have been included, though, and this reader also felt this way about the Alkaline Flats sections of the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet: they’re required to complete the story, but one can have too much of a good thing.

Having mentioned Conan Doyle twice now, this reader wonders whether it’s even possible to read a novel set in 1885 London that involves a crack detective, a suspicious death, and a master thief without comparing it to the Holmes series or the non-stop flow of mimicries produced since. As Reid’s review points out, Price puts into Conan Doyle’s mouth a frustration with detective novels where the criminal’s downfall is brought about by his own stupidity and, I’ll add, Price sets this conversation just a year before A Study in Scarlet was published. This ought, perhaps, to imply that Shade (should the reader finally meet him) will be revealed to be a Moriarity-grade genius, but to the author’s credit, though Shade is no slouch when it comes to giving the authorities the slip, he’s neither dull nor brilliant, but simply a competent thief with good connections and sense enough to mount his next heist just in time to fund his next escape.

Shade is also revealed as a product of his circumstances, which is to say, coming of age during the U.S. Civil War. This real-person dimension to not just him, but all of the novel’s characters, also stands By Gaslight beside actual contemporaries like Dennis Lehane’s Coughlin trilogy—and while it may not have the class considerations that Lehane’s recent work or that of Charles Dickens does, By Gaslight counters one of its own characters’ dismissals of another Victorian’s work, the “sensation novels” of Wilkie Collins, by being an enjoyable read that succeeds just as well in that capacity as in that of the detective or the historical novel.

—Daniel Perry

As in The Malahat Review, 200, Autumn 2017, 172-175