By Gaslight by Steven Price – book review

by Edith Cody-Rice

By Gaslight by Steven Price 001Steven Price’s late legendary editor Ellen Seligman was a huge fan of Mr. Price, a Canadian poet and novelist,  and particularly of his novel By Gaslight, which she edited during the last months of her life. She described the novel as brilliantly and beautifully written – with astuteness, vividness, intelligence, elegance, tension, wit – with compellingly interwoven stories, psychological depth and an understanding of human fallibility and conflict.

At 731 pages, it is all of these things although it could have achieved the same effect, I think, in about 200 fewer pages.

Steven Price has a Dickensian appreciation of the power of words to create an intricate visual scene. Set in London, England, in 1885, with flash backs to earlier lives of the characters, the novel deals with the pursuit by William Pinkerton, son of the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, of a shadowy, possibly fictive character, Edward Shade. Implicated in the mystery are a dandy and thief Adam Foole, his followers, Foole’s lost love Charlotte Reckitt, Scotland Yard inspector Shore and a host of carefully drawn seemingly authentic 19th century characters. The story, though, revolves around Pinkerton and Foole, and nothing is quite what it seems.

The book starts out with the pursuit of Charlotte Reckitt by the American who has come to London to follow up on a lead. She jumps into the Thames while fleeing Pinkerton and shortly thereafter, a severed head, ostensibly hers, is discovered in the river. The atmosphere of darkness, mystery and danger is thereby established and expertly maintained throughout the book.

Steven Price not only does a wonderful job of plot development, keeping tensions high and the story murky and dark, but he has evidently done meticulous research on late nineteenth century London: streets, dress codes, food, customs, the flash (criminal) world all intricately described and brought to life in this remarkable work.

The cover of the book is a perfect introduction to its contents. A faceless bulky man in a top hat strides down a cobble stone street into the London fog. Mystery, danger, the London era three  years before the advent of Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel.

Read this now, in the waning days of summer, or even better, on a bitter winter night with a storm howling outside. That would be the perfect setting in which to immerse yourself in this menacing tale of treachery and deception.