Monday, 1 April 2013

"Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol," 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.

This is the most recent in Gyles Brandreth's series of novels that feature Oscar Wilde as detective, and you can also find reviews of some of the previous entries in the series on this blog.  This novel takes place at a time nearing the end of Oscar's tragically short life, so it looks likely that this is the last in what has been an entertaining series.

The framing narrative for this novel takes place after Oscar Wilde has left Reading Gaol.  Oscar is in Dieppe, and is approached by a mysterious man who asks him to write about his time in prison - it is this account that forms the spine of the story.  This finds Oscar at his lowest ebb, having just been found guilty of gross indecency, suffering dysentery in prison, deprived of books, writing materials, fine food, drink and society.  In the solitary hell of Wandsworth Prison, a brutal warder bursts into Oscar's cell at night, raging against him, and then drops dead.  When Oscar is moved to Reading Gaol, the mystery follows him.

This is a more pared down entry to the series with a smaller cast of supporting characters by dint of its claustrophobic, insular setting.  Neither Conan Doyle nor Bram Stoker feature as characters - and I did miss them - but, according to the acknowledgements, many of the other characters were real-life figures at the time who Brandreth has similarly fictionalised.  The lack of Conan Doyle, although he is mentioned, does mean that the element of reverse engineering of Holmesian plots - which I wrote about in previous reviews of the series, and sometimes found problematic - is less prevalent in this novel.

I am still less adept at recognising where Oscar Wilde ends and Brandreth begins than I am spotting the Conan Doyle allusions.  I keep thinking that I should read more of the classics - I have read very few since leaving academic life - and then I get distracted by the latest Janet Evanovich or Howard Jacobson (granted, the latter is rather more literary than the former). I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't read Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," so some of Brandreth's phraseology might be trying to emulate it in ways that I am too poorly read to recognise.

This is a good breakfast book series, which I enjoyed (although I am not sure reading about dysentery is the best breakfast reading) and I always find it interesting when an author merges real historical figures with fiction.  They are entertaining mysteries that draw on Wilde, Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker but - aptly as I did write that I should read more classics - I do feel inclined to go back and re-read the Sherlock Holmes stories or novels, "Dracula," or "The Picture of Dorian Gray" while I doubt that I would return to read this series again.

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