Given its length and structure containing four flashback sections plus an epilogue, By Gaslight appears a daunting read. However, in this case appearances are deceptive. This tale is skilfully set up and packed with enigma and suspense such that readers will hurtle from chapter to chapter and barely notice the time fly. Certainly, the telling of the story could be shorter, but then one would miss out on the atmospherically exuberant detail, which is a strong feature of this book. An omniscient narrator alternates from a focus on the protagonist (William Pinkerton) to a focus on the main antagonist (Adam Foole). The reader may flinch at the occasional authorial intrusion, but on balance this seems to render the experience richer and even more Dickensian in style. As do the character names, which bristle with the same wit as one will find in Dickens’ early novels as well as Smollett’s and Trollope’s before him.
At the heart of this tale is an apparent unresolved filial relationship between William Pinkerton and his recently deceased father, Allan Pinkerton (founder of the detective agency). Seeking his own answers, William has taken on his father’s obsessive quest to track down the mysterious Edward Shade. William, like the reader, longs to know just who and what Edward Shade was to Allan Pinkerton and why Pinkerton Senior was obsessed in finding him. It is January 1885, and the trail leads William to fog-filled London and to Charlotte Reckitt, but when William corners her, Charlotte jumps into the River Thames. The following day her severed head is dredged from the river, and with that the trail to Edward Shade has gone cold… or has it? An excellent read with vibrant descriptions, a clever structure and very strong ending.