Steven Price’s By Gaslight is a 19th-century sensation novel rewritten with a noir sensibility: Wilkie Collins meets Raymond Chandler. And it goes some way toward meeting our expectations for books of that kind – that is, for long, twisty tales of the Victorian underworld. Foggy atmosphere? Check. Abundant period details? Check. Resolute detectives, colourful criminals, dangerously beguiling women? Check, check, check. In fact, as a neo-Victorian mystery it is nearly perfect. Its plot is a maze of misdirection; its protagonists claw their way through it burdened by secrets and confounded by lies; it offers revelations but not salvation. It’s formulaic, but expansively so, and it reworks these familiar elements with style and originality.
By Gaslight tells the intertwined stories of two men on opposite sides of the law. One is William Pinkerton, who has taken over the Pinkerton Detective Agency following the death of its founder, his father Allan. The other is Adam Foole, an elegant grifter from the “flash world.” Their paths cross during William’s search for the mysterious and elusive Edward Shade, whom William’s father had spent years futilely tracking. “Who was Edward Shade?” says Allan’s old associate Sally Porter. “No one knew. No one had ever seen him.” Every account William hears is different. Is Shade real or a figment, alive or dead? And why does finding him matter so much? “What is it you huntin’ for?” Sally demands. The real answer lies somewhere deep in William’s troubled relationship with his father.
The initial link between William and Adam is Charlotte Reckitt, William’s “one certain lead” on Shade. With her “small sharp teeth, long white fingers,” and a “voice low and vicious and lovely,” she sounds like a classic femme fatale, but as William closes in, she herself inexplicably takes a fatal leap into the Thames. The gruesome discovery of what appear to be her remains compounds the mystery: how did a drowning victim end up dismembered? Why, and how, did she cut off her hair?
William’s inquiries bring him into contact with Foole, who is interested in Charlotte for reasons of his own. The two men become unlikely – and mutually suspicious – allies in the quest for the truth about her fate, an investigation that eventually also reveals the perilous hidden connections between their own histories and the truth about Edward Shade.
Solving the novel’s puzzles requires not just detection in its Victorian present but exploration of the past. A series of flashbacks takes us, most significantly, to America during the Civil War, which is the crucible in which all of the novel’s main characters were formed – or, more accurately, deformed.
For all its panache as a historical thriller, By Gaslight is strongest as a war novel. Elsewhere, Price’s prose can seem mannered and artificial, and he relies heavily on the trick of conspicuous withholding to create his suspenseful effects. But the writing becomes urgently gripping in the chaos of battle, where “the world dissolved into flame and smoke and a shuddering earth,” and amid the horrors of its aftermath, where we see “boys with their bowels shot out doubled over and seething with the pain” while “a slow foaming gutter of blood” runs across a gore-soaked tent. Price emphasizes, too, that the dead are not war’s only victims: the survivors all struggle to restore themselves in a world that, though technically at peace, is riven by violence and murky with corruption.
By Gaslight is an engrossing read. The twists and turns deepen our understanding of the characters even as they advance multiple plot strands, and Price immerses us in a world of sights and smells so precisely rendered they are nearly tangible. The language flirts with flamboyance and drifts occasionally into awkward archaisms, but at its best it is both elegant and concrete.
The novel is limited, however, by having no broader perspective: nothing carries us beyond the characters to give their stories thematic resonance of the sort that motivates the great 19th-century novels to which By Gaslight is so indebted. “There are confluences in a life, moments of deep exchange between strangers,” thinks Edward Shade, “when the strands of two different fates draw together and the cutting of one necessitates the cutting of another.” “What connexion can there have been,” asks the narrator of Dickens’s Bleak House, “between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!” Both novels explore the intricate ways individual lives are interwoven, but unlike Dickens, Price does not illuminate the social, moral, or political significance of the patterns they form. By Gaslight keeps us shrouded in its own bleak, atmospheric fog – intrigued, entertained, but not enlightened.