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Review: By Gaslight, by Steven Price
Farrar, Straus, 2016. 731 pp. $28

William Pinkerton has much more than his reputation to make a thief uneasy. Not only is he an accomplished detective, son of the famous Allan (and director of the agency that bears his name), William grasps implicitly that revenge and justice are reverse sides of the same coin, and the difference doesn’t trouble him overmuch. If a man’s a criminal, he must be stopped, and proof or evidence are mere tools toward that end. That makes Pinkerton as relentless as he is unpredictable, and if there’s one thing a careful, professional criminal dislikes, it’s an adversary who makes his own rules with the daring calculation of a fanatic.

Allan Pinkerton’s obituary in Harper’s Weekly, 1884; even in death, he cast a deep shadow on his sons (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

So it is that in 1885, Pinkerton has traveled to London to track down Edward Shade, a figure from his late father’s past. Why Pinkerton père spent so much effort trying to find Shade, whose elusiveness fits his name, isn’t entirely clear. But William has inherited the quest, which he pursues with every ounce of his considerable energy. And when the trail leads him to a woman believed to be connected to Shade, she literally slips from his grasp to throw herself in the Thames.

I wouldn’t dream of summarizing further. At 731 pages, By Gaslight is a weighty novel, but that’s like saying the pyramids are large and made of stone. Rather, imagine said pyramid built by dropping pebble upon pebble, and you have Price’s narrative technique. As you read, each mote falls into place as if there were no other suitable niche, and just when you think you might have uncovered the secret you’ve been waiting to see revealed, there’s another hidden inside. I defy anyone to start this novel and not finish it.

So I won’t tell you more about the plot, but I will mention three other characters. There’s Adam Foole, a gifted man of the “flash” (criminal) world, with a checkered past that has taken him around the globe, like as not in desperate straits. Master thief and con artist he is, but where most novelists would make such a character a likeable rogue, Price reaches higher. Foole’s neither rogue nor Robin Hood, though the men he robs are brutal types who amass wealth for its own sake and hide behind it, a tacit comparison that works in Foole’s favor. More importantly, though, love and friendship matter most to him, including his affection for his two partners in crime.

They are Japheth Fludd, a mountain of a man whose suspicious worldview provides a counterpoint to Foole’s more romantic nature, and whose bond to Foole seems at first hard to explain. But never fear; Price gets to it, eventually. Foole and Fludd look after Molly, a street urchin and pickpocket extraordinaire, whom Foole treats like the daughter he’s never had, and whom he patiently instructs in manners and the right way to treat people. They’re a marvelous triumvirate.

But a story of this heft wouldn’t take flight without winged prose, and this is where Price dazzles. A certain tone of voice is “cold and brutal as a steel cable”; William loves his wife’s name, “the aristocratic lace of its syllables, the knot it made of his tongue.” And then there’s London, which Price renders in its filth and splendor like a latter-day Dickens, minus the sentimentality:

He did not go directly in but slipped instead down a side alley. Creatures stirred in the papered windows as he passed. The alley was a river of muck and he walked carefully. In openings in the wooden walls he glimpsed the small crouched shapes of children, all bones and knees, half dressed, their breath pluming in the cold. They met his eyes boldly. The fog was thinner here, the stink more savage and bitter.

The novel ranges from England to India to South Africa to the United States, both the Western cow towns where desperadoes rob banks, and Virginia during the Civil War. (Allan Pinkerton runs spies for General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, and William joins his father there.) But everywhere the narrative goes, you sense the place and time as if they entered through your fingertips touching the pages.

I like intricate books, though I must confess I got twisted around so that I’m not sure I understand everything in this one. But I don’t mind that as much as the two annoying tics in which Price indulges himself. By Gaslight has no quotation marks, and sometimes you have to parse out where dialogue ends and narrative resumes. He’s not alone–Lydia Peelle did the same in The Midnight Cool–but I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it. It’s as if the authors are pretending that they’re so good, their prose needs no punctuation. Silly. Similarly, Price uses commas so sparingly that his longer sentences sometimes have a breathless, full-of-themselves quality, like a more loquacious Hemingway. I don’t get that, either.

But By Gaslight isn’t just good; it’s spectacular, in every sense of the word.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.