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Steven Price’s ‘By Gaslight’ is a formidable mystery, but worth the effort

By Gaslight

By Steven Price

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

720 pages,$28

By Michael D. Langan

“Fiction dreams with one eye open.” – Steven Price

“By Gaslight” is Canadian writer Steven Price’s copious second novel, a mystery. At its best, it will remind you of the work of Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle. It exudes an abundance of atmospherics mixed with indirection and subtle plotlines.

The story begins in London, 1885. The novel’s schema involves William Pinkerton, the oldest son of the founder, Allan, of the famous American detective agency. William is in England on the hunt for an infamous criminal, Edward Shade, “a trickster who eluded his father’s most brilliant stratagems” in the past. Shade will remind readers of the master criminal Moriarity.

William is a tough guy: He’s had his knee blown out at Antietam, and “shot twenty-three men and one boy outlaws all and only the boy’s death did not trouble him.” William has been home for only a month in the last five years, though he loves his wife and daughters. His teeth are yellow, his face wide, eyes sunken, and “pupils as dark as the twist of a man’s intestines.”

Pinkerton’s been asked by Scotland Yard’s John Shore to investigate the death of a young woman named Charlotte Reckette. The woman’s body – apparently – has been found in the Thames. The corpse – if it is the real Charlotte – is not a simple drowning. Pinkerton examines the dismembered figure in a dilapidated London morgue. Somehow, given her multiple pasts, she seems to have been tied in with this fellow Shade as well.

After William’s look at the corpse, he meets and joins up with Adam Foole, another person of note to his father, Allan Pinkerton. Years earlier, Foole, a gentleman, was in love with Charlotte Reckette and is now looking himself for her killer. Also joining the trio is a giant of a fellow named Japheth Fluud. All have their reasons for finding the Reckette woman’s murderer.

Foole also tries to redirect the efforts of a waif, Molly, a “scary wee dipper,” a pickpocket. Molly earlier worked for a family of criminals run by two cruel half-blind sisters. Molly’s thieving skills are enormous. We’re told that “She could outrun a beak’s whistle the length of a city block and could time a street crossing to pass under the belly of a dray.” As a reader, you become aware that you are acquiring considerable London criminal-speak of the period.

And while this close observation and delineation of character goes on for pages, it is in a sense, all by the way. There is a larger game afoot in this sprawling novel that extends to the battlefields of the American Civil War and the diamond mines of South Africa. But it risks being overlooked because of the novel’s scope and sweep.

“By Gaslight” is a novel crammed with images and description. In this way, the author can hide clues in the seams of the novel’s dense packing. But the immense detail of the novel comes with a risk. Its effect on the reader is can be wearing, tempting one to miss the broader pattern of life and loss being examined.

Yet at a showdown in the end, William presses Shade to tell him things about his father – in between shots fired between them – that William didn’t know.

We learn that the senior Pinkerton had protected Shade all the while he gave indication that he was looking to arrest him. I leave the reader to find out the reason why this was so. Sometimes, the connection between cop and crook becomes entangled.

In this case, so much so that Shade tells William that he loved old Pinkerton like a son. At this point, the combatants’ conversation is occluded by the roar of a train nearby, just before Shade gives William a “regretful look,” and “stepped casually out into the maelstrom and vanished.”

Others lives are adverted to: John Shore of Scotland Yard retires in 1886 and he’s immediately hired as head of Pinkerton’s office in 1898. Adam Foole’s end is variably described as being somewhere in Italy in 1893, or else in Marseilles. Japheth Fludd was photographed in a knife fight in Cathay in the same year. People come and go and their visages become indistinct.

Life in the detective business is a burden, as William explains in the Epilogue entitled “The Eye That Never Sleeps.” In his old age, William gets called out from his place in northern California when his San Francisco office gets a request to which only he can respond.

It concerns an old timer known to William named Bill Miner. Miner makes a bad attempt to hold up a bank using the same techniques he used sixty years earlier. (Hint: they don’t work anymore.) William is now in rough shape. But he still carries a revolver (no rounds in it), enough to take care of rounding up Miner.

Life is downhill to the dirt. Even the toughest, like William Pinkerton, get old and …

“By Gaslight” is a novel bordering on exceptional. But it requires endurance to make it to the end.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer of books for The Buffalo News.

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