Steven Price on a character living on both sides of the law
Steven Price's novel By Gaslight was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Set in Victorian London, South Africa and the battlefields of the American Civil War, the book tells the story of two men — one of whom is a famous detective — who come together to find an elusive con man.
I sat down one day and wrote the first paragraph of the novel. The novel ended up being 731 pages, but at the time it was a paragraph, and that paragraph still stands as the opening paragraph of the book.
Fifteen years ago, my grandfather's brother came down from his reclusive property up-island from where we live on Vancouver Island, and he started telling some very interesting stories. One of them was about his father — my great-grandfather — and why he came to the west coast of Canada. He came from London, England, and none of us knew why. But when he got here he started a security company — a lock and safe shop — using skills he'd learned as a gunsmith's apprentice in London. The origin story that my grandfather's brother told was that he'd got into some considerable trouble with the law, and he fled as far west as he could go. This intrigued me, but at the time I didn't do anything with it. And then one day, I sat down and I wrote the opening paragraph of By Gaslight. It described a man with very similar tendencies and leanings towards the criminal world, but who ended up working to protect the rights and laws that existed in his time, which was the 1880s. That man was William Pinkerton, one of the earliest private detectives.
Steven Price's comments have been edited and condensed.