Publish Date: January 4th, 2014
Source: Free on Amazon
Pages: 63 pages (according to Amazon).
Synopsis: It’s London, 1920. Newly demobilized soldiers have flooded the capital’s streets but an ungrateful country isn’t ready for them. Harry Costello has returned from the horrors of the Somme to no job, no money and no prospects. Desperate times demand desperate measures and when an opportunity to burgle a house presents itself, Harry seizes the chance.
When Harry and his brother Frank are blackmailed into paying off a local hood they decide to take care of the problem themselves. But when all of London’s underworld is in thrall to the man’s boss, was their plan audacious or the most foolish thing that they could possibly have done?
You think crime doesn’t pay? Meet the Costellos – the kind of criminal family that might make you change your mind. (Source: Amazon product description.)
Short version: Moody and vivid, though it leaves the reader hanging.
Long Version: On a September evening in 2013, I trundled my way through Soho, London, with a group of friends. They’d come from as far off as Scotland to converge on London with me, and I’d come as far as Australia, pushing a bright-red walking frame in front of me. The light was fading, and we were looking for a tapas bar. As we made our way further and further into Soho, the streets got narrower. The road surfaces got rougher and the gutters deeper. We walked past restaurants fronts painted in bright primary colours. We walked past haute couture clothing stores with delicate light-fittings that shone through the front windows like early stars. We walked past this mural in honour of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Past pubs and lamp-posts gaily strewn with baskets overbrimming with flowers.
It’s at one of these lamp-posts that Dawson starts the reader, though the flowers are absent and, in an age before public electricity and environmental concerns, that lamp-post has a layer of soot on it about an inch thick. In deft, vivid prose, Dawson paints a picture of London’s poorer quarters, as it was for the survivors of the First World War:
… A graceless wilderness where the kips and spikes throned with vagabonds, beggars, criminals and brasses… where whole families could be submerged forever and where, down darkened alleyways where policemen would only patrol in pairs, you could get your throat cut as easily as a ship on the South China Sea.
Dawson’s skill with description is not just restricted to London, but to the characters he invented to inhabit it. One memorable passage describes George Costello, one of the main characters, in this way:
Angelo Ginicoli, an acid tongued drinking pal of the brothers, said that his face was like half a pound of walnuts wrapped in a flannel.
The biggest disappointment about this book is one that should almost please any writer: it is too short, and the story is too thin.
In fairness to Dawson, Gaslight was written as a prequel to his earlier-published works, The Imposter and The Black Mile. Both these works are longer and presumably more detailed, and I’ve read neither of them yet. It’s supplementary material for Dawson’s fictional universe, but it also seems to telegraph to the reader that they have missed something.
This seems most prominent in the characterisation of Harry and George Costello and Bella, Harry’s love-interest. Dawson does a nice job of lulling the reader into thinking the Costello brothers are a brains-and-brawn duo, then subverts this when “brains” Harry turns out to be the more impetuous (despite the walnut-like appearance of George’s face.) But his impetuosity, while making some great action later in the tale, seemed a little out of left-field for me. When a character decides to seriously screw over the criminal overlords of London, I would like to know why he would choose to do such a thing, and in a little detail.
Bella, I felt, was the character who lost out the most in this book. Seen filtered twice through the perspective of Dawson the writer and Harry Costello the character, she is more of a plot device than a character: remarked on almost purely for her beauty, immediately igniting irrational jealousy in Harry, and infuriatingly passive when the plot demands she be a damsel in distress. Again, I got the impression she is seen in Dawson’s other works and may be fleshed-out there, but I can only go by Gaslight alone, and was left at the end still wondering what Bella was actually like. Given that the POV is almost entirely third-person Harry’s, I can see why Dawson was compelled to write Bella like the object Harry sees her as, but it didn’t make for a character I felt any connection to or sympathy with.
Bella does, however, passively facilitate one of Dawson’s key strengths – action sequences and violence. To quote would be to spoil, but these paragraphs are compelling and vivid without being disgusting for sheer shock value.
In terms of editing and proof-reading, this e-book is nicely done, though not perfect, with minor typos and the occasional punctuation gaffe here and there. These shouldn’t distract the reader too much.
Gaslight is, like most fiction, not without its flaws. But I felt it was well worth the time and effort to read. Better, it’s also inspired me to want to read Dawson’s other works set in this gritty, dangerous London.