I Got it at the Library: “By Gaslight”

That Stephen Price is a helluva storyteller.

gaslight - author
Steven Price

At over 700 pages, By Gaslight, the second novel by the Victoria, British Columbia-based poet and fiction writer might have been a doorstopper. But like many of the lengthier films I have enjoyed over the years, I was never bored or visually fatigued thanks to the author’s vividly realized prose and memorable characters.

The novel is set in 1880s London (with flashbacks to the American Civil War and the diamond mines of South Africa) and it is a credit to Mr. Price’s impeccable research and richly detailed narrative that I had to keep reminding myself that this novel was written recently and not penned a number of decades ago. (I haven’t read a novel this rich in period detail which transported me back in time since Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan which was primarily set in 1939 Berlin and Paris – the novel also flashes forward to the early Nineties.) 

gaslight - cover

The story centres around William Pinkerton, son of the crusty, larger-than-life authoritarian who founded the famed investigative organization, and his hunt in foggy London town for an elusive criminal whose very existence is questionable. There is also a gentleman grifter named Adam Foole, his lady love, Charlotte Reckitt, a giant named Fludd and Molly, a ten year old girl who is wise beyond her years (to say the least).  Each of these characters are given humane and believable back stories, scrupulously sculpted by the author. The result is, yes, characters you both know and care about as well as (or better than) members of your own family.

You don’t have to be Fellini, to paraphrase an old George Carlin routine, to see themes of the often thorny relationship between fathers and sons, the futility and tragedy of war (any war) and the Rashomon – like nature of truth interwoven into the narrative.

Perhaps the ancient adage is true that a prophet (or, in this case, an author) is without honor in his own country because, in one of the first Canadian literary websites I logged onto, the highly respected quillandquire.com, while admitting that the novel is “an engrossing read“, the reviewer says  “… nothing carries us beyond the characters to give their stories thematic resonance of the sort that motivates the great 19th-century novels to which By Gaslight is so indebted … “(Perhaps the writer of this review has been hanging around stuffy Ontario academics too long,)

I much prefer the enthusiastic, uncluttered  response of America’s NPR (National Public Radio): ” … Intense …  threaded through with a melancholy brilliance, it is an extravagant novel that takes inspiration from the classics and yet remains wholly itself.”

Perhaps the best description of the novel is on the back cover of the book itself: ” … darkly mesmerizing,” writes author Jacqueline Baker, “worthy of the great Victorian thriller writers, but Steven Price brings to his prose a sensibility and dazzling skill all his own … perfectly grounded in period and rich in incident and image. Haunting and deeply satisfying. “

Come to think of it, Stephen Price and Esi Edugyan are husband and wife. Could they be CanLit’s new Power Couple (even if they are not based in Toronto)?

gaslight - couple
Esi Edugyan and Steven Price: The Canadian Lit Power Couple?

Is the Newspaper Biz As Dead as The Girl Next Door?

Brad - author
Brad ParksThe Reporter Next Door

Brad Parks is a former newspaperman (for The Washington Post and The Newark Star-Ledger) whose previous experience informs his prose in his mystery novels. (His protagonist is an investigative reporter named Carter Ross who writes for the fictional Newark Eagle- Examiner.) Checking his website, I learn that Mr. Parks has written six novels. The quote below is from his third novel The Girl Next Door (2012) and seems to reveal the current fortunes (or lack of them) of the once prosperous newspaper biz and its life and death struggle against the power of the Internet.

“Over the past dozen years or so my business has ceded its dominance in any number of areas – classified advertising, national and international news, sports scores and so on -to the Internet. But we still have a monopoly on obits. So while you can go anywhere to find out if the Yankees won, you have to come to us to find out if your neighbor is still breathing. It makes the obit pages a throwback to a better day for newspapers, one part of a crumbling industry that has somehow held strong. “

brad - tombstone

In another part of the opening chapter, Carter reminisces about his previous editor, Sal Szanto, “a gruff, old-time newsman” who had been “invited (read:forced) to take a buyout in the latest Eagle-Examiner herd culling. In the consideration of the fiscally constipated bean-counters who had been given free rein over our newspaper, Sal was ‘overpaid’ (read: fairly compensated). His long experience and many contributions to quality journalism actually counted against him because he had accrued so many raises during the good years. Now, with the good years long gone, he was rewarded with an early and unwanted retirement.”

For anyone who still works in the newspaper business these quotes make for unsettling reading.

Thank goodness the public is still reading and buying mystery novels (for now, at least anyway)

brad - book