Doorstopper of the Month: By Gaslight by Steven Price

My 2017 goal of reading one book of 500+ pages per month has been a mixed success. With the best doorstoppers the pages fly by and you enjoy every minute spent in a fictional world. From this past year Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle fits that bill, and a couple of novels I read years ago on holidays also come to mind: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. But then there are the books that feel like they’ll never end and you have to drag yourself through page by page.

Unfortunately, Steven Price’s second novel, By Gaslight, a Victorian cat-and-mouse mystery, tended more towards the latter group for me. Like Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, it has the kernel of a fascinating story but piles up the words unnecessarily. Between July and August I read the first 300 pages and then skimmed the rest (in total the paperback has 731 small-type pages). This is the story of William Pinkerton, a 39-year-old Civil War veteran and private investigator from Chicago who comes to London in 1885 to chase up a name from his father’s files: Edward Shade. His best lead comes to nothing when Charlotte Reckitt evades him and turns up as a set of dismembered remains in the Thames. Keeping in mind the rudimentary state of forensics, though, there’s some uncertainty about the corpse’s identity.

The other central character in this drama is Adam Foole, a master thief. Half Indian and half English, he has violet eyes and travels in the company of Molly, a young pickpocket he passes off as his daughter, and Japheth Fludd, a vegetarian giant just out of prison. Foole was Charlotte’s lover ten years ago in South Africa, where they together pulled off a legendary diamond heist. Now he’s traveling back to England: she’s requested his help with a job as she knows she’s being tailed by a detective. The remaining cast is large and Dickensian: a medium and her lawyer brother, Charlotte’s imprisoned uncle, sewer dwellers, an opium dealer, and so on. Settings include a rare goods emporium, a Miss Havisham-type lonely manor house, the Record Office at Chancery Lane, and plenty of shabby garrets.

What I most enjoyed about the book was the restless, outlaw spirit of both main characters, but particularly Pinkerton. His troubled relationship with his father, in whose footsteps he’s following as a detective, is especially poignant: “William feared him and loved him and loathed him every day of his life yet too not a day passed that he did not want to be him.”

Price’s style is not what you’d generally expect of a Victorian pastiche. He uses no speech marks and his punctuation is non-standard, with lots of incomplete or run-in sentences like the one above. The critics’ blurbs liken By Gaslight to William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy, apt comparisons that tell you just how unusual a hybrid it is.

I liked Price’s writing and starting around page 150 found the book truly gripping for a time, but extended flashbacks to Pinkerton and Foole’s earlier years really drag the story down, taking away from the suspense of the hunt. Meanwhile, the two major twists aren’t confirmed until over halfway through, but are hinted at so early that the watchful reader will know what’s going on long before the supposedly shrewd Pinkerton does. The salient facts about both characters’ past might have been conveyed in one short chapter each and the 1885 plot streamlined to make a taut novel of less than half the length.

There are many reasons to admire this Canadian novelist’s achievement, but whether it’s a reading experience you’d enjoy is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

A favorite passage:

There is in every life a shadow of the possible, she said to him. The almost and the might have been. There are the histories that never were. We imagine we are keeping our accounts but what we are really saying is, I was here, I was real, this did happen once. It happened.

My rating:


By Gaslight was first published in the UK by Oneworld in September 2016. My thanks to Margot Weale for sending a free paperback for review.

Fun trivia: Steven Price is married to Esi Edugyan, author of the Booker Prize shortlisted novel Half Blood Blues.

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12 thoughts on “Doorstopper of the Month: By Gaslight by Steven Price

  1. I was interested in you comment about the cast being ‘Dickensian’. Do you think there is a tendency for a writer to feel that if they are setting their novel in Victorian London then they have to try and emulate Dickens scope and breadth in terms of plot, setting and character?

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    1. I do think an author writing a Victorian-set novel has to be conscious of Dickens’s example and either follow it or distinguish the work from it in some way. There were some characters, settings and tropes that reminded me of Dickens for sure. Japheth Fludd was the most Dickensian in terms of name and unsubtle characteristics, and was probably my favorite character. It’s with the language and the gritty atmosphere that Price veered away from Dickens.

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    1. I can’t blame you. It really has to be worth it to embark on all those pages. Having been lured in by the idea of a well-received Victorian-set novel and requested a copy from the publisher, I felt I had to at least skim it to the end. Perhaps it’ll be made into a TV miniseries and you can watch that instead 🙂

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  2. This book has been sitting in one of my stacks since it was longlisted for the Giller last fall. I keep thinking I’ll pick it up and then get scared away by the length. I’m thinking it’s the kind of book that you shouldn’t read when in a rush. I still might try it sometime when I’m in the mood to take my time with a big book.

    I had no idea he was married to Esi!

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  3. Sounds like we had a similar response to this one. What i loved was the atmosphere of it. I also liked some of the character building of the less important characters (not to say that I found a lack in the main characters, rather that I appreciated some of the devleopment of the secondary ones, which seemed to suit the story). But I too guessed the story points rather early and spent a little too much energy (perhaps) in waiting to find those expectations overturned (which didn’t happen). I don’t usually comment on that aspect of things if someone else hasn’t alluded to that first, but as you’ve covered it in your post, I”m happy to ride on the coattails of your observation. Don’t you think you would have enjoyed it far more if you had been surprised? So many elements are strong…

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    1. I definitely loved Japheth Fludd. The pacing decisions surprised me — to hint at a twist at perhaps page 180 and then not confirm it until very near the end I suppose could be considered clever, but mostly frustrated me. So many dives back into the Civil War history…

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      1. Maybe ‘clever’ is as much a matter of subjective response as other, more obvious, elements? It fascinates me, as a sometimes-reviewer, just how differently we, as readers, can respond to elements of storytelling. Let alone pure matters of taste. I was just reading Karen at BookerTalk’s post which included the opening lines of Ben Okri’s Booker-Prize winning novel, and am freshly marvelling at how intensely one reader can loathe a passage while another can love it – in the end, much of it remains a mystery. However, I do wish I’d fallen harder for Stephen Price’s novel: it seemed like such a brillant match for me at some points. You know?

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