You don’t need anyone to tell you that By Gaslight is epic. One look at this potentially toe-crushing novel is enough to tell that story. At nearly 750 pages, it’s a big book. And though there will be those who will say By Gaslight would have benefited from some judicious trimming, it likely won’t be said by those who thrill to novels steeped in the classic notions of English literature with a crime fiction core. By Gaslight is moody and poetic. Author Price cut his teeth creating stunning poetry, include two award-winning collections: 2006’s Anatomy of Keys and Omens in the Year of the Ox from 2012.
Price’s background in making words dance stands him in good stead here. By Gaslight is huge, spans three continents and probes the depth of human emotion… and it does it beautifully.
His eyes would fill with light even after a light was extinguished, like the eyes of a cat. They were violet and hard as amethysts and they liked the darkness.
By Gaslight is rich, gorgeous and drenched in atmosphere. It is also really good, bringing to mind such relatively recent classics as Michel Faber’s 2002 epic The Crimson Petal and the White and Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers from 2011. Both of those books gave more than nods to the conventions of serious crime fiction, while pushing all tropes to the next level. Post modern historic crime fiction is that what we’re talking? Perhaps. But whatever it is, it’s here.
Remember: the story is epic. So it’s not surprising that we begin with William Pinkerton, the greatest detective of his era, newly arrived in London, a city he loathes. Pinkerton is looking for William Shade. Shade is also being sought by Adam Foole, a man who has returned to London after a long absence with a heart filled with longing for the woman he loved and lost a decade before.
The stories of these three are entwined and we follow them from London to South Africa’s diamond mines and even to the American Civil War.
The writing is beautiful. Still, it’s difficult, in 2016, to think that some of By Gaslight could have been tighter. More precise. And yet, would that have been a compromise? The pace is slow in some ways. But it’s a stately journey. And that alone harkens back to earlier, more leisurely times and perhaps even serves to make the history of this novel feel more real.
Quibbles about length aside, By Gaslight is a magnificent novel. Pay attention: one way or another, you’re going to be hearing lots about this one soon. ◊
Linda L. Richards is editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.