Monday, 15 August 2016

The origins of By Gaslight by Steven Price

I suppose, on one level, By Gaslight is a detective novel, a Victorian noir. It tells the story of two Americans, in London in 1885, each seeking the truth of the elusive thief Edward Shade; there is a dead woman, buried histories, early crime technology, fog, and shadow.

But on another level, it is a little bit stranger than that.

One of the origins of the novel came when I realized - perhaps obtusely, but with a kind of visceral shock all the same - that the American wild west, the west of the outlaws and railroad hold-up men, was simultaneous with Jack the Ripper's gaslit London. Who - if any - were the people who moved back and forth between such worlds? In nearly every western movie or television series there is the 'citified' character, usually a shopkeeper or clerk, wearing a dusty, hot, unsuitable three-piece suit and clearly not belonging in the frontier. But rarely - if ever - do we see the western cowboy walking the streets of the great Eastern cities. Why is that? Did no one in the west go east, ever, did no one from the west ever cross the Atlantic? I'd not thought of it in such terms.

It turns out such men did exist. The private detective William Pinkerton, eldest son of the Pinkerton Agency's founder, rode down outlaws and thieves throughout the western territories. He was tough, physical, iron-willed, and a very good shot. But he also walked the great cities of Europe, Vienna, Paris, London, and wore fine suits and elegant top hats and ate in expensive clubs. He straddled both worlds. And I found in him the perfect character, a man with the talents of the outlaw, a man for whom the ends justified the means, but who worked on the right side of the law. He seemed to carry the violence and roughness of the western territories with him, even in Chicago, or New York, or, yes, London.

The outlaws of the American west were born in the fires of the American Civil War. By Gaslight, though set in London, casts itself back across the western frontier, chronicling some of William Pinkerton's pursuits of famous real-life outlaws, such as the Reno gang, or the monstrous bear-like Farrington Brothers, all the way back to the Civil War, and the savagery of that time. I wanted to cast London, as it existed in 1885, through the lens of men who had known that western world firsthand, who had experience of some of the horrors of industrialized warfare, and lawlessness, and open skies.

What I was doing in the writing, though I could not have described it so at the time, was viewing the underbelly of the great nineteenth century British Empire from my own North American perspective. Many people today think of 19th Century London as a largely homogenous place; in fact, it was the first great modern world-city, a city teeming with people from all corners of the empire and beyond, and on its streets one could hear dozens of languages being spoken. The world arrived on London's doorstep and brought its multiplicities with it. I wanted to approach that city from a perspective that was 'other,' that was in its way foreign and strange. There is something very Canadian in this, I think now, both in the multicultural interest, and in the ways By Gaslight's characters and loyalties are torn between differing pressures.

In the end By Gaslight became a novel about a detective, rather than a detective novel, although it plays with and employs many of the common tropes. For instance, a dead body animates the story in the opening pages, but it is not the body of Charlotte Reckitt (who has leaped to her death into the Thames), but rather the body of William Pinkerton's father, who died some six months earlier, and whose unfinished business William is determined to put to rest. I set out to write a novel that kept a close eye on its characters, a novel whose central mystery was not one of incident - what happens, and how - but of character, that is, who it happens to. I wanted to write a novel about grief, and family, and the inheritance of loss that we all must live with, when a parent dies and we find ourselves abruptly alone with our memories. Which is, of course, a mystery of a different kind.

By Gaslight by Steven Price is published by Oneworld priced £18.99

London, 1885. A woman's body is discovered on Edgware Road; ten miles away, her head is dredged from the dark, muddy waters of the Thames. Famed detective William Pinkerton had one lead to the notorious thief Edward Shade, and now that lead is dead. Determined to drag Shade out of the shadows, Pinkerton descends into the seedy underworld of Victorian London, with its gas-lit streets, opium dens, sewers and séance halls, its underworld of spies, blackmailers, cultists, petty thieves and pitiless murderers.  Adam Foole is a gentleman without a past, haunted by a love affair ten years gone. Returning to London in search of his lost beloved, his journey brings him face-to-face with Pinkerton, and what he learns of his lover's fate will force him to confront a past - and a grief - he thought long buried.

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