Armchair Book Club: By Gaslight

Heather Allen explores B.C. author Stephen Price's latest, By Gaslight.

The weather is turning cool and the nights are growing longer, which makes this a perfect time to settle in and savour a 750-page epic fresh off the printing press.

Long-listed for this year’s Scotia Bank Giller Prize, By Gaslight, by B.C. author Stephen Price, is set in Victorian London amid the filth and grime of the industrial revolution. Famed American detective William Pinkerton visits fog-shrouded London to hunt down master criminal Edward Shade.

By Gaslight is all we’d expect from a Victorian thriller – dark London streets, shadowy mortuaries, hulking criminals, dangerous pubs, oozing sewers, snot-nosed street urchins, lies, secrets, deceptions and enough plot twists to make your head spin.

Although definitely writing in the familiar literary territory of Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens, Price manages to tell his story in a fresh and original manner. Price is a poet – someone who is able to write about the familiar and every day and make readers see it as if for the first time. His invocations of light and shadow in stinking, decaying London are reason enough to pick up this book.

Price isn’t held back because he is a writer from another continent and another time; in fact, his distance allows him to see a Victorian mystery through an original lens, and to expand the story beyond borders.

William Pinkerton and the hunted criminals have ties to the United States, and to that country’s civil war. The suffering, brutality and low regard for human life, especially the underclass found on Victorian London’s streets, is poignantly mirrored on American battlefields.

By Gaslight isn’t a quick read. By the time I reached the final pages, I felt as though I wasn’t just leaving a story behind, but another world. Fortunately, many of the eleven other books on the Giller Prize longlist look tempting as well:

Those on the Giller longlist are: 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad; Yiddish for Pirates by Gary Barwin; Pillow by Andrew Battershill; Stranger by David Bergen; The Wonder by Emma Donoghue; The Party Wall by Catherine Leroux; The Two of Us by Kathy Page; Death Valley by Susan Perly; Willem De Kooning’s Paintbrush by Kerry Lee Powell; Do Not Say We have Nothing by Madeleine Thien and The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall.

The winner will be chosen Nov. 7. Hopefully, that will give readers enough time to start – and to finish – the epic By Gaslight.


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