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Book Review: By Gaslight

Glancing through the stacks of books at Costco I was having a hard time deciding what to read next. I kept returning to By Gaslight written by Canadian author Steven Price because I’d not read a ‘murder/mystery’ story in a long time. I can’t remember one past the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys series and this was an awfully big book with teeny, tiny print. I left with it nonetheless.

The main story is set in London in 1885, just before the time of Jack the Ripper. But the main characters come from afar. William Pinkerton, a cowboy from Chicago, and son of a famous detective is in London looking for a thief named Edward Shade. Born in India, but raised in Boston, Adam Foole was also in London. He was looking for a lover he once had, or at least for some answers as to what happened to her. It turns out that she brings the two men together in a very unexpected turn of events.

And that’s what I like about this story. I was about halfway through when I thought I had solved the mystery, but wait, I noticed how many more pages to go. Something was wrong. The twists and turns in the story were unexpected keeping me hooked. The story seems to soar far beyond just London taking us back to Chicago and the Detective Agency William’s father started following his duty in the civil war. We also get a glimpse of India and sailing with the East India company; Boston with the comfort of wealth and stability; and escaping Africa.

The writing style is crisp and clean with an interesting note – there are no quotation marks to denote speech – yet I understood easily when there was dialogue and I didn't find it detracting at all. What I found depressing after a while was the London scenery where the central story takes place. Author Steven Price describes the smell, fog, dampness of it all, constantly. There is “the grey chill of the streets,” and “its cobbled streets were filthy even to a man whose business was filth.” After a while I really wanted some light, airy scenery.

What was most interesting to me came later in the story as they were solving the murder and William Pinkerton was watching how the doctor was using forensics to help determine the time and place, as well as how the murder happened. It was developing as a way to catch criminals. It was also the first time William was seeing fingerprinting and the value it held in crime fighting, an idea that had not been used in the US yet.

Overall, the story feels like it is about loss and abandonment, the desire for a fathers love that neither William nor Adam found. The wretchedness of this story cannot be escaped, only worked through, but it’s hard to find peace if all you look for is the wretchedness. It is a story with a sad undertone to me but as a mystery or thriller it was definitely a gripping story and that is why I would recommend this book.

Here’s the link. Let me know what you think.

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