• By: Don MacLean

An Eerie Glow:  By Gaslight is a Masterpiece of Storytelling

9780374160531By Gaslight
By Steven Price

Book Reviewed by Don MacLean

Steven Price’s remarkable new novel By Gaslight opens with a Dickensian depiction of London. It’s January 1885 and the great city is steeped in a swirling, ominous fog. Like a debilitating virus, the coal soaked air serves to make anyone sick who comes in contact with it. It also serves to partially conceal the poverty and the violence that lurks in every corner, behind every shadow. We learn in those opening pages of an unprovoked attack on a man out walking and a young girl left bloodied after being kicked off a carriage. For all of this described haziness, the point seems clear. The fog and the city it envelops threatens to smother those who live or enter there. London at this time is best characterized as rootless, sickly, dangerous and crime ridden. Those who arrive at the city from elsewhere do so at their own peril.

It’s into this most unwelcome setting that a legendary American detective has set foot.  William Pinkerton’s legend has a double source: his father Allan Pinkerton was an even more revered and feared detective than William turns out to be. William takes over the family crime solving business. Over time, he too earns a reputation as an accomplished detective and a feared physical and mental presence. As familiar as William is with death and as shrewd and merciless as he can be, he remains haunted by his father’s passing and by an unrealized pursuit involving an Edward Shade. He has come to London to finish what his father could not.

Adam Foole, the reader quickly learns, is a master thief who specializes in the sort of heists that require impeccable timing and can be carried out with a minimum of violence. He has two accomplices, one a young and deprived but street savvy girl and the other an almost larger than life man who is both loyal and prone to embrace violence as a necessary part of their trade. Individually they are all social outcasts who alone would struggle to survive the sprawling and unforgiving streets of London. Together they comprise both a makeshift family and a formidable team with Adam as their indisputable leader.

Author Steven Price.

William travels from Chicago to London to track down a woman who he hopes will help him find the ever elusive Edward Shade. Just as he is on the verge of communicating with the woman in question, however, parts of her dismembered body have been found in the River Thames. Who killed her and why would someone do so in such brutal fashion? William must work with his counterparts at Scotland Yard to find the rest of the victim’s body and her killer. Their investigations do not distract William from his relentless pursuit of Shade. On the contrary, William (and the reader) immediately suspect that perhaps Shade was somehow involved. That possibility, however, doesn’t preclude more basic questions from being posed by William’s English associates. Does this Shade character even exist? Or is he possibly a legend of William’s father’s imagination? Or if he did exist, is it possible that he’s long dead?

Price understands the first rule of good fiction. The novelist’s twin priorities must be to tell a good story and to tell it well. By Gaslight is a multi layered mystery novel of the highest order. The different mysteries that make up the heart of the novel are all intimately intertwined and masterfully realized. He tells the story with prose that is at once precise and luscious. Once immersed in certain writers’ stories – Tolstoy comes to mind – it’s as though you are smoothly flowing down a river. There is something inherently pleasurable about the experience even when what’s being depicted is sometimes too brutal to contemplate. Stevens possesses this gift. Indeed there are scenes of sometimes grisly violence in By Gaslight. They take place in the fog swept streets of London and the theatres of war in America. But for all of the described violence and cruelty, Steven’s prose pulses with life. 

It’s also the added dimensions to By Gaslight that ultimately give it so much depth and make it a masterpiece of storytelling. The story moves back and forth in time and across three continents. The effect is to not simply propel the narrative, but to show how characters are shaped by the past. Although William’s pursuit of a killer and of Edward Shade take place in nineteenth century London, for example, both have long roots extending back as far as the American Civil War. William’s father was a ruthless and revered General fighting on the Union side. Among his many roles was to work with Union spies residing in Confederate States. To be a spy during any conflict is a hazardous business, to be sure. But to be a Union spy living amongst Confederates was an act of bravery of the highest order. To be caught is to be assured of prolonged torture followed by a brutal death. Is it possible that Edward Shade was sent into this earthly hell by Allan Pinkerton with the purpose of killing him? Did Shade survive the ordeal only to seek revenge on his former military master?  In going back, not only is the mystery of Edward Shade slowly revealed, Allan Pinkerton’s legend is given shape.

The portrait of William is even more fully realized. The reader is taken back to his days as a young school boy who finds love in a most unexpected way. That young love becomes the foundation for a relationship that deepens over time. There are wonderfully rendered scenes of mutual affection and marital happiness. Time’s effects, however, are often corrosive. As the years past and the characters age, memories of the affection and the happiness gives rise to a melancholy that is beautifully depicted and deeply felt.

Adam Foole is the character that most resembles a character in a Dicken’s novel. His was a tumultuous childhood characterized by abuse and abandonment and horrific violence. That anyone would survive what he as a young lad endured is in itself a testament to the human spirit. But Foole not only survives, he as a man thrives as a criminal dependent on his wits. He emerges from his tragic childhood as a young man perfectly suited to the 19th century big city. He is threatening and elusive enough to roam a dark alley or a rat filled sewer and charming and self assured enough to be at home at lavish dinners hosted by the rich. William, for all of the mystique stemming from his crime investigating acumen, does not intimidate Foole in the least. On the contrary, Foole is the one to initiate contact with the great detective. Better to shape events than be controlled by them. So he promises William to help him in his pursuit of Shade.

British Columbia writer Steven Price. Don Denton photo
British Columbia writer Steven Price. Don Denton photo

The resulting tentative truce can not last, of course. William and Adam, after all,  are on opposite sides of the law. The reader, however, will not fail to notice that they are also similar in many important ways. Both are loyal. Both are shaped – in some ways distorted – by their family. For both the love of a woman exerts a powerful influence on who they become. For William, his wife’s love acts like a refuge from the world of crime and death in which he’s immersed every day. For Adam, the love he experiences is more short lived and, in the end, illusionary. Nevertheless those days of tenderness and lovemaking expose him to another aspect of the human experience. To that point in his life, he knew nothing but hardship and violence and loneliness. When the affair ends he’s left with a longing that haunts him. But the absence doesn’t become an excuse for cruelty, as it sometimes does.  Perhaps most importantly, both William and Adam understand the need to respect the enemy and the need for preparedness if he is to out smart and outmanoeuvre his opponent. This is why the reader so eagerly anticipates their inevitable confrontation.