Clocking in at a hefty 752 pages, By Gaslight is a doorstopper of a book. It might best be described as a literary historical crime thriller, and is set for the most part in the London of 1885. Famed American detective William Pinkerton is in London chasing a mysterious thief of some infamy, the elusive Edward Shade. Meanwhile, Adam Fool, a gentleman swindler is also in London having received a letter from a lost love, Charlotte Reckitt. Their paths cross when Fool learns that Reckitt has apparently been murdered, and what’s more, Pinkerton was one of the last people to see her alive as she was a promising lead in his pursuit of Edward Shade. What follows is a cat and mouse game as both Pinkerton and Fool try to find out what happened to Reckitt and why, albeit for their own very different reasons, and all the while trying to suss out the other’s motives and plans for the future.
The narrative is told from both men’s perspective, with chapters alternating between the two. While for the most part the action takes place in the London of 1882, there are flashbacks which tell both men’s’ backstory. We learn of Mr. Foole’s childhood in India, how after his father died he was marooned in America in poverty, how he found himself fighting in the American Civil War. For Mr. Pinkerton we discover the huge shadow his father, the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, has cast over his life, how he has followed in his father’s footsteps. All this cements the two men’s’ histories and helps give a feel of almost deterministic inevitability to what follows.
Writing a novel is hard as any author, aspiring or successful, will know. Crafting a compelling tale which can keep the readers’ interest without succumbing to various pitfalls - a sagging middle, a damp squib of an ending - is a real skill. Managing this over a book the length of By Gaslight is another proposition entirely. Stephen Price manages just this with admirable aplomb. This wasn’t a book that could be digested in one sitting, it’s length prevents that, but at no point was I ever tempted not to return.
In large part the author’s success is down to superb plotting. For example, there were small moments towards the start of the story, that one assumed were to flesh out characterisation, that later gained significant import. But I think a more significant element to keeping the reader engaged was the author’s poetic turn of phrase. It was no surprise to learn that Stephen Price is also a published poet. Quite simply there were times when the writing was sublimely beautiful.
By Gaslight is both a gripping and really quite moving read. I really grew too care what happened to the characters who peopled its pages, and not just the two main protagonists, Pinkerton and Foole. The London of the 19th Century really does come to life in this epic tale and I can highly recommend it.
5 out of 5 stars