Review by Mark Palm
If you have read my reviews before you should know by now that the categorization of books drives me crazy. I know that it is a necessity for bookstores and libraries, and it makes it much easier to find what you want when looking for something to read. On the other hand it creates “ghettos”, where works placed in a certain category can never reach an audience any wider than the one the marketing department decided was the best fit. Now and again a book comes along that straddles categories, like the Colossus of Rhodes. By Gaslight by Steven Price is just such a work. An audacious comparison, you might think, but how else can I describe a 700-plus page historic thriller that spans fifty years and three continents and is written in spare poetic prose that completely eschews quotation marks for all of the dialogue?
Basically By Gaslight is the story of two men; William Pinkerton, son of Allan, who founded the world-famous Pinkerton’s Agency, for some time the largest private security and detective agency that once had more employees and operatives that the standing U.S. Army, and Adam Foole, who seemingly has no past, and is living a life of secretive thievery for two equally mysterious comrades, Japheth and Molly. Pinkerton is in London, investigating the presumed death of Mary Reckitt, who was the partner of Edward Shade, the infamous thief that William’s father had been pursuing for decades. Foole is also obsessively searching for Mary, and the paths of the two,as well as their pasts collide. From there the story jumps forward and backward decades as Mr. Price deftly teases out the winding plot, that however complex it may get never manages to lose its tension. Bear in mind that this is no fast and loose thriller, but a massive book about spies , (the Pinkerton agency was responsible for almost all of the espionage work done for the Union during the Civil War), and secrets. Mr. Price delves into the pasts of both men and the events that made them and haunt them as the story unspools, while also touching upon such subjects as the nature of the self, and identity, all the while never stinting on the suspense.
As I mentioned earlier the prose is poetic, but in a sharp spare way that beautifully evokes place and time, from the slums and mansions of Victorian London to the battlefields of the American Civil War. The descriptions are deft and made me want to linger over them, even as the mesmerizing story pulled me along.
. The author completely jettisons quotation marks, a risky move that I have read some find an annoyance, but for me, the gamble pays off in spades. The lack of quotation marks forced me to read more slowly, and also made me more aware of the the dialogue and the prose, and never once seemed to me like an affectation.
Both Pinkerton and Foole are complex and realized characters, and they dominate the story, and all of the side characters ring true as well. Of particular interest was Mary Reckitt, the pivot upon whom so much of the story turns. In a story full of haunting characters, and the memories they carry, Mary stands out. As we learn more and more about the two men Mary remains a mystery, seen only from without and physically absent for much of the story. When she is present she is an elemental force.
For all of it’s size and depth when I got to the finish of By Gaslight I wished that there was more to go. If you want to know how much I thought of this book, I think that that says a lot.