At the edges of Steven Price's By Gaslight are two eerily familiar characters. One is the coroner, Dr. Breck, whose head "sway[s] at the end of his neck, snakelike and grotesque" (159), and performs impossible-seeming readings of crime scenes, and the other is Gabriel Utterson, a shady lawyer who conducts business for one of our protagonists. Breck mashes up Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, while Utterson is straight out of Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in both name and profession, if not in character. Neither is a hero or focalizer; they belong to narrative roads not taken. Their presence in the margins--deformed versions of the original--hints at other twisted literary presences in the novel: Molly, a pre-adolescent thief much older than her years, is a grittier Artful Dodger; Adam Foole, one of the novel's protagonists, is a grungier A. J. Raffles, but both his "Emporium" and his relationship to Molly also suggest a warped Old Curiosity Shop. We are in deliberately "literary" Victorian London, a setting that is not so much referential as it is composed of history filtered through Dickens, Doyle, et al. and equally hazy modern beliefs about what "the Victorians" were like. Everything is covered in filth (this novel is in historical fiction's filthfic subgenre); many of the criminals, like Japheth Fludd and the Sharper sisters, are grotesques; there are gigantic sewers and opium dens; characters go to seances; the rich are very rich and the poor are very poor. The novel's evocation of the past feels "real" in large part because literary history has conditioned us to accept it as such, even though the terse prose pointedly rejects the stylistic embellishments one might associate with anything even quasi-Dickensian.
But then, the novel's plot very much relies on the relationship between fictions of the past and identities in the present. Its two intersecting plots follow William Pinkerton (son of Allan) as he tries to locate the appropriately-named Edward Shade ("notorious cracksman and thief" [57-58]), with whom Pinkerton Sr. was strangely obsessed, and Adam Foole, the quasi-genteel, biracial crook who, as a teenager, was known as Edward Shade. Much as the novel warps its literary references, it also warps the detective genre: the most conventional aspect of the plot, the murder of Charlotte Reckitt, is allowed to lapse for a good chunk of the novel before being solved by a supporting character, while the real mystery behind Pinkerton's pursuit of Foole is, in fact, why Pinkerton is in pursuit of Foole. (The novel's conclusion equally fails to deliver the expected payoff, although it delivers a payoff for William of a very different sort.) Both the narrator and the characters repeatedly call Allan Pinkerton's interest in Shade an "obsession" (the "peculiar obsession" ), and William's quest to find Shade is not so much an attempt to arrest him as it is to figure out the roots of his father's strange interest. More than that: as escaped slave and former spy Sally Porter says to William when he comes to ask about Shade, "What is it you huntin for?" (15) Shade is a route back to William's now-dead father; the question, then, is why William seeks to repeat his father's "obsession." To know his father better? To do what his father apparently could not? To figuratively kill the past? William's hunt after Shade is doubled by Foole's own yearning for his lost lover and former criminal associate Charlotte. Foole has returned to London to help Charlotte with her plot to break her "uncle," Martin Reckitt, out of jail, an apparent resurrection of the past that abruptly short-circuits after their reunion. In both of these instances, this yearning for the past is not so much nostalgia as it is a desire for certainty: what motivated Allan Pinkerton's interest in Edward Shade? Why was Foole unable to resume his relationship with Charlotte? And yet the results leave the characters as discomforted as they were in the beginning, even if some of the questions have been cleared up. None of the characters have conventional happy endings, even if they do make it out alive.
In disrupting the stereotypical (and Dickensian) ending to the Victorian multiplot novel, in which all loose ends are firmly tied, the novel also disrupts a favorite Dickens trope: alternative families that look nuclear but aren't. Allan Pinkerton tells Foole that "[t]here's the family you're born to, and the family you make. It's the latter kind that lasts" (501), but the quasi-sentimentalism of this utterance is supported at best partially by the rest of the narrative. Foole, Fludd, and Molly (and, perhaps, Foole's housekeeper, Mrs. Sykes--yet another shout-out to Dickens) are a criminal team who also function as a domestic unit, a "strange kind of family" (55). Molly's previous would-be guardians, the Sharper sisters, are also quasi-parental figures. Foole is orphaned, becomes "Edward Shade" with one guardian, and then latches on to Allan Pinkerton as a substitute father figure; his beloved Charlotte, also orphaned, is picked out of an orphanage by her "uncle" Martin. Yet all of these alternative families are rooted in misunderstandings and/or have little in the way of a future. We have no idea what happens to Molly, and it's hinted that Japheth comes to no good end. To the extent that Foole's relationship to Allan "lasts," it does so without Foole ever quite comprehending what is actually going on. The Sharper sisters are abusive. I won't spoil what happens after Charlotte discovers the truth about Martin Reckitt, but let's just say it's not exactly pleasant. To the extent that we are in the world of the Dickens orphan, it is the Dickens orphan whose function in the narrative can only be concluded by being shipped off to Australia, like the Artful Dodger, not comfortably enfolded in domesticity, like Oliver Twist.