By Gaslight by Steven Price

Well, this was a long book! Not only does it have over 700 pages, it’s also the sort of book that requires a lot of concentration, which makes it a very slow read. I’ve been reading it for the whole of August, which is one of the reasons why I’m not going to complete my 20 Books of Summer challenge by the deadline now. Was it worth so much time and effort? I’m actually not sure; it wasn’t a complete success with me – there were times when I found myself really enjoying it and others when I couldn’t wait to be finished – but on the whole I think I’m glad I read it.

This is the second novel by Canadian author and poet Steven Price. Set in the 19th century, it follows the stories of two men – William Pinkerton and Adam Foole – who are bound together by tales of a shadowy figure known, appropriately, as Edward Shade. Pinkerton is a famous American detective who is in London assisting Scotland Yard with an investigation into the death of a woman, possibly Charlotte Reckitt, whose severed head has been found in the Thames. He believes Charlotte has links with Edward Shade, an elusive criminal whom his father had devoted twenty years of his life to hunting down, without success. But who is Shade? A real person…a ghost…or just an obsession?

Adam Foole, a thief and swindler, has also recently returned to England with his two accomplices – the giant Japheth Fludd, and Molly, a young pickpocket. Foole has received a letter from a woman he once knew asking for help, but on his arrival in London he is unable to find her. Soon his path will cross with William Pinkerton’s; it seems that both of their fates are linked with Charlotte Reckitt and the mysterious Edward Shade.

By Gaslight takes us on a tour of the darker side of London as Foole and Pinkerton (separately or together) visit Millbank Prison, an opium den, a séance and the underground sewer system. However, there are long interludes set in South Africa and in America during the Civil War and these are essential to understanding the backgrounds to our characters and therefore to understanding the mysteries at the heart of the novel. These sections have quite a different tone from the London parts and, to me, they didn’t really feel as though they belonged in the same book; had the whole novel been devoted to the Civil War or had it been purely a Victorian murder mystery I think I would probably have been happier. This is just my opinion, though, and I’m sure other readers will love the variety of settings and changes in atmosphere.

By Gaslight is the perfect title for this book – not only are gaslights mentioned frequently, the whole novel (or the London chapters, at least) feels misty and murky and everything seems to happen either at night or in the fog and rain. Although most of the action takes place in 1885 and any long flashbacks are usually given their own chapters, eventually the borders between past, present and future start to blur, all adding to the sense of mystery and of facts being hidden or obscured.

The author has also made the decision not to use correct punctuation – commas are used sporadically and quotation marks not at all. Again, whether or not you will feel comfortable with this is a matter of personal taste; you could see it as a clever way of trying to immerse the reader more fully in the fogs and mists of the story or, like me, you could just find it annoying and distracting. I should add, though, that at no point did I actually struggle with it; I could always tell how a sentence was intended to be read and who was speaking to whom.

On the whole, though, this is an atmospheric and unusual novel and, despite the length and my reservations about the writing style, I never thought about abandoning it. It’s unlike any other Victorian novel I’ve read and if anyone else has read it, I would be interested to hear what you thought of it.

Thanks to the publisher, Oneworld Publications, for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 14/20 of my 20 Books of Summer challenge.