Sunday, 20 November 2011

"Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders," by Gyles Brandreth

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I have joined Goodreads (and, as I know a paltry amount of people on there, friend requests are welcomed), but I admit that I have not yet got addicted to it to the same extent as I have with Twitter.  There is, however, one thing in particular for which I am grateful - their new releases email.  If I had not received emails about them which list new releases which might interest me, I would not have realised so quickly that there was a new Oscar Wilde mystery or a new Phil Rickman (next on my reading list).

In "Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders," Dr Arthur Conan Doyle goes to Bad Homburg to spend some time sorting through the correspondence that has been sent to his creation, Sherlock Holmes, at 221B Baker Street. By coincidence, he finds that his friend, Oscar Wilde, has been convinced by his wife to take the cure in Bad Homburg for his health.  Wilde is bored and seizes on the company, offering to help Conan Doyle work through his post.  A mysterious parcel addressed to Sherlock Holmes contains a gruesome discovery that leads them to Rome in search of answers and adventure.

In this novel, Gyles Brandreth has pared down his normal dramatis personae.  A couple of his regular sometime narrators - Robert Sherard and Bram Stoker - are absent from this novel, as is Oscar's wife and family.  In previous novels Brandreth has used an epistolary style, constructing the narrative through a collage of letters and diary entries by Sherard, Conan Doyle and Stoker.  In this, the narrative is entirely in the voice of Dr Arthur Conan Doyle, ostensibly from his unpublished memoirs.  This device effectively means that Conan Doyle is functioning as the Dr Watson to Wilde's Sherlock Holmes.

In my post on the previous novel, "Oscar Wilde and the Nest of Vipers," I wrote a little about Gyles Brandreth reverse engineering elements from the Sherlock Holmes canon.  This is very entertaining for the literary nerd in me, and this novel - supposedly taking place in Oscar's life before he has written "The Importance of Being Earnest" - contains a couple of incidental echoes of lines from the play.  This is at the heart of his reverse engineering: for us, as readers, Brandreth throws in references that recall elements of the earlier text and we can feel entertained and a little smug at getting the in-joke but, to the characters in the novel, they function as inspiration for future writing.  However, for the first time with this novel, I became aware that this is problematic because it allows a reader with a reasonable knowledge of the Holmes canon to second-guess where Brandreth is going with an idea.  I won't say what triggered this realisation - it is a curious oddity that my mentioning something written over one hundred years ago is a spoiler for something recently written - although I do have to admit as a mitigating circumstance that it was not a significant point in the solution of the mystery.  This might be less of a problem in another genre but, in a mystery which relies on twists and sleight of mind, it is a dangerous trick to play because the dividing line between homage to past writing and spoiler for writing in progress is potentially slight.

Despite that caveat, I am still enjoying the series and I will read the next one also (assuming that Gyles Brandreth continues the series).  Brandreth's books also continue to shame me into thinking that I should know more about Wilde, and should go back to read more of his writing.

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