Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders by Gyles Brandreth (published in the USA as Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance), John Murray Publishers Ltd, 2008, 355 pages).
I suppose you could call this book an ‘historical whodunit’. It’s set in 1889 – 1890, fin-de-siècle London and Paris and the mystery begins with Oscar Wilde finding the naked body of Billy Wood, a 16 year old boy in the candle-lit room in a small terraced house in Westminster, close to the Houses of Parliament. Billy’s throat has been cut and he is laid out as though on a funeral bier, surrounded by candles, with the smell of incense still in the air. It’s a combination of fiction and fact, with both real and imaginary characters. Wilde with the help of his friends Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Sherard sets out to solve the crime. Sherard (the great grandson of William Wordsworth) who wrote poems, novels, biographies (including five of Oscar Wilde) and social studies is the narrator.
The story reads quickly (so quickly that I didn’t want to stop to make notes as I read) and is full of colourful characters such as Gerard Bellotti, who runs an ‘informal luncheon club for gentlemen’. Bellotti is
‘grossly corpulent’ giving the impression of ‘a toad that sits and blinks, yet never moves’ wearing ‘an orange checked suit that would have done credit to the first comedian at Collins’ Music Hall and on the top of his onion-shaped head of oily hair, which was tightly curled and dyed the colour of henna, he sported a battered straw boater.’
Wilde is a fan of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories so much so that as the mystery is unravelled he picks up clues in the manner of Holmes, observing and deducing, exclaiming when questioned by Conan Doyle ‘Come, Arthur, this is elementary stuff -Holmes is where my heart is.’ I think it is this combination of fact and fiction that I enjoyed most in reading the book. I knew little about Wilde or Doyle and nothing about Sherard before reading it, but I think I learned a lot about all three people, about their characters, their views on life and love, and their works, as well as about the society in which they lived.
According to The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries website the book is peppered through with quotes from Wilde, or Brandreth’s versions of Wilde’s words, together with Brandreth’s own inventions. I couldn’t tell which was which, as I’ve only read Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and seen a TV production of The Importance of Being Ernest, but it all seemed perfectly in character to me. I found the details of Wilde’s love for his wife Constance particularly interesting in contrast to his trial for gross indecency in 1895. In fact I came away from the book really liking Wilde and wanting to read more about him and by him. Fortunately the biographical notes at the end of the book give more details of works by and about Wilde, Conan Doyle and Sherard.
I didn’t find the mystery too difficult to work out, with lots of clues throughout the book, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. On the contrary it made it all the more pleasurable. The next book in the series, Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death, is due out in the UK in May and in the USA, called Oscar Wilde and the Game of Murder, in September. Apparently there are seven more in the pipeline. That should mean I end up knowing an awful lot more about Oscar Wilde!