Steven Price, By Gaslight

The further I get from Steven Price's debut novel Into That Darkness, the more I distrust my original review of it. I've recommended it several times over the last few years, and I think very fondly both of its horrors and of its writerliness (which I kind of objected to at the time of reading). If you haven't read Into That Darkness, you're in for a treat once you get there.

What's annoying is that I now have not unrelated misgivings about By Gaslight, Price's celebrated second novel that has earned him not just praise but significant cash.

Disagreements at book club, though, have helped me come to terms with my frailties as a Price reader. The general consensus was that it took too long for things to get moving with this book, something like 300 pages before there's momentum as such, but a couple of us took issue with that (mostly me, admittedly). For me, those slow first 300 pages were the best part of the book, and I didn't need the acceleration. Those who'd read the last chapters in a single gulp, who appreciated the pace of the last 150 pages, couldn't understand why I would have been happier if this 750-page doorstop had entered the world as the 900-page behemoth that its first 300 pages promised.

Do I need to talk details? Very well, I talk details, the book contains multitudes.

William Pinkerton is a richly complicated character, echoing the Judge from Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, but for me he's almost too solid. There's a wonderful insubstantiality to Adam Foole that makes me wish he'd been on-screen for more time, and his sidekicks Japheth Fludd and Molly deserve their own novels (and I would have hoped for more Fludd in the extra 150 pages I'm asking for!).

And I appreciated Price's handling of the US Civil War, particularly the internecine complexity of spycraft between two sides in a country's internal conflict. He does a nice job on the class effects of 19th-century London architecture, I thought, and the gradations of criminality that reach all the way into the sewers. His prose aims at the McCarthy-esque, or possibly the Faulknerian, and if he falls short, it's not by much, and mostly because it's not always clear why this would be the right style for what he's trying to accomplish.

Me, I wanted more from By Gaslight. It's entertaining, thoughtful, and I think well researched, and it should lend itself really, really well to screen adaptation. But I wanted more: a longer, slower read; more character depth (and more time inside different characters); something more overtly thematic.

I'll go back to Into That Darkness this fall, if I can find the time, because I think that I may need to revisit my first review. This one, I don't anticipate backing away from.


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