Sunday, 7 August 2011
"Oscar Wilde and the Nest of Vipers," by Gyles Brandreth
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
When I visited my parents over Christmas, I raided my Mum's book collection for the first 3 Oscar Wilde mysteries by Gyles Brandreth (UK titles in order: "Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders," "Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death" and "Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man's Smile"). I wasn't able to meet up with some of my friends while I was home because of the snow and ice, so instead I read the first 3 books in close succession. I should admit right now that, as I binge read them at speed, my memory of them is hazy - although I remember enjoying them. As my memory of the first 3 is indistinct, this post will focus on the 4th book which I have just finished reading.
In "Oscar Wilde and the Nest of Vipers," ("Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders" in the USA) Oscar and his "recording angel" Robert Sherard are at a party being held by the Duke and Duchess of Ablemarle - as are the Prince of Wales and Rex LaSalle, who claims to be a vampire. Following the party, the Duchess is found in a state of undress in the telephone room. She is dead, with cut marks to her torso and two strange tears in the flesh of her neck. It emerges that the Duchess was apparently a nymphomaniac with a heart condition, and Lord Yarborough - physician and friend of the family - examines the body and explains her death as being due to heart failure resulting from sexual exertion. The Prince of Wales, friend and a possible lover of the Duchess, suspects otherwise and asks Oscar - who now has something of a reputation as a detective - to investigate.
Gyles Brandreth's Oscar Wilde mystery novels blend fiction with expert knowledge of Wilde's life, writing and bon mots. I have to make the shameful admission that I am not well versed in Wilde: I know what is common knowledge, and what might be expected of an English graduate who did not specialise in that era. An expert in Wilde would find it easier to see the join when the real Oscar ends and Brandreth's Oscar begins. I, of course, recognise the famous quotes that Brandreth includes as bon mots for Oscar but, with lines that are not familiar to me, I find it hard to tell if it is Wilde or Brandreth's literary impersonation of his style.
Although Oscar Wilde is fascinating and was undoubtedly a genius, I find myself more drawn to some of the other literary figures that feature as substantial supporting characters. The tale is told through letters and journal entries by Robert Sherard - apparently another figure from history, as Wilde's friend and biographer, but one of whom I was less aware - Bram Stoker and Arthur Conan Doyle. As someone who is a bit of a sucker for Victorian gothic, and has therefore read Dracula for pleasure and study, and who has a fondness for Sherlock Holmes, I enjoy the addition of Stoker and Conan Doyle. It is documented, I know, that Conan Doyle and Wilde knew each other - a lunch engagement with an editor which they both attended resulted in Doyle's "The Sign of Four" and Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" - and in Brandreth's earlier novels I was fascinated by his suggestion that Wilde was the model for Mycroft Holmes. In this novel I also enjoyed Brandreth's reverse engineering of the Sherlock Holmes stories: Conan Doyle avers that he records events in his journal in case they are useful for his stories, and throughout his novel Brandreth throws in hints to elements from the Holmes canon. Brandreth even attributes to Wilde, "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth," which Conan Doyle says is a "lovely line."
So the use of historical personages, both literary and royal, is interesting and is done well, but is the mystery effective? I thought so. There was one point - not to give anything away - when I thought I understood a particular plot development as part of vampire lore, but it turned out to have an entirely different significance. I like the fact that it managed to surprise me and, if Gyles Brandreth does write another Oscar Wilde mystery, I would definitely make a point of continuing to read the series. I also kept seeing Stephen Fry as Wilde when reading this, so this novel has had the side-effect of making me want to see Wilde again (which, despite being a huge Stephen Fry fan, I don't own and haven't seen for over 10 years).