Synopsis from Amazon:
London, 1889. Oscar Wilde, celebrated poet, wit, playwright and raconteur, is the literary sensation of his age. All Europe lies at his feet. Yet when he chances upon the naked corpse of sixteen-year-old Billy Wood, posed by candlelight in a dark and stifling upstairs room, he cannot ignore the brutal murder. With the help of fellow author Arthur Conan Doyle, he sets out to solve the crime – and it is Wilde’s peculiar genius and his unparalleled access to all degrees of late-Victorian life – from society drawing rooms and the bohemian demi-monde to the criminal underclass – that prove the decisive factors in their investigation of what turns out to be the first in a series of bizarre and apparently inexplicable killings.
The first Oscar Wilde mystery is quite the unique affair. I was primarily eager to read it because I am such a fan of Oscar Wilde himself; as such, probably the harshest kind of critic there is for such a book as Gyles Brandreth’s, but no fan could ask for a more wonderful fictional tale. It is clearly well researched, and executed with exceptional talent. It is a carefully crafted, beautiful portrayal of a most wonderful artist, and an honest depiction of the ordinary man he was also. I have never read anything quite like it, but it’s certainly true as one critic says, ‘Oscar Wilde could not have done it better himself!’
The story features several historical characters, and an entirely fictional plot. Indeed, Arthur Conan Doyle features throughout the novel, and Robert Sherard openly plays Watson to Oscar’s Sherlock Holmes. The novel is brilliantly written, the plot progresses at the perfect pace and reads like a classic murder mystery. The language, the setting, the style of writing will draw you back a century as easily as any writer of the time. As for the plot, I vaugely suspected part of the outcome, but it is clear throughout we are never really supposed to know. Only a man with such as mind as Oscar’s could possibly deduce whodunnit! However it is, and I believe Brandreth intended this, more importantly a portrayal of Oscar Wilde. While the story is told from Robert Sherard’s perspective, and Sherard is known in his several biographies of Wilde for being more taken with Oscar than with facts, it’s clear that the appreciation for Wilde’s genius Brandreth holds is also shining through. He manages to capture the wit, the genius, the very charisma that made Wilde a celebrity in his day.
Initially, I wasn’t at all certain about the book. Being a well-read fan of Wilde’s, I recognized every ‘Wildean maxim’ this novel quotes, and there are quite a few included – so many that I wonder what is left for the second two books! This doesn’t detract from the novel as such, but it did very much draw my attention to the ‘constructed’ character of Wilde. I cannot really fault it however, it does Wilde’s character great justice, the depiction of his persona is exactly as I have always imagined it, and to anybody who is not so familiar with Wilde, it is the most perfect introduction to the man. Such reference to the man and such portrayal as there is indicates only extensive research and genuine regard for the task at hand. It captures him faithfully; not merely the genius, but the man with all his imperfections, endearing his character to the reader as easily as meeting Wilde himself would have done. In this novel a reader will catch a glimpse into the compelling, secret world known only to Wilde’s friends. Truly, it is for fans and unfamiliars alike – there is something for all to appreciate.
I must say, I’m extremely excited about reading the next two installements, if only to spend some more time with Oscar. Indeed, the narrator of the books, Robert Sherard, tells the tale after the death of Wilde, and the occasional melancholic recollections of the event brought tears even to my eyes. The lamentations of Wilde’s close friends will stir your heart as surely as Brandreth makes you feel Wilde was your friend also. “She died in Paris!” says Oscar in this story, ” – As all the best people do”.