Oscar Wilde, Detective

Once again, I’ve jumped into the middle of a mystery series—this time the Oscar Wilde mysteries by Gyles Brandreth. I requested (and received) a review copy of the sixth book in the series, Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Goal. I figured Oscar Wilde, mystery novel, free ebook—that’s a chance worth taking. And I was right.

This book is largely set in (no surprise) Reading Goal, where Wilde spent the majority of his two-year sentence for gross indecency. (There’s a whole back story here that deserves study from biographical, legal, and cultural perspectives, but I’m not going to go into that here; just know that if you poke about on the internet or in a library there’s lots to learn.) The pace is slow. The clues, which often aren’t immediately recognizable as clues, are dealt out sparingly. The beginning, end, and a central interval are set in Dieppe, France, after Wilde has been released and where he is recounting the story of his imprisonment to an unknown man who’s offered to write the story up for publication and split the profits.

Because Wilde’s prison life is monotonous (both as lived and in the later retelling), one needs to be prepared for a somewhat turgid pace. (Note that I don’t mean “turgid” in a bad way; it’s just the best word I could come up with in terms of denotation, even though it’s not quite right in terms of connotation.) This novel isn’t a cliff-hanger that ends each chapter leaving the reader desperate to begin the next. Once one adjusts to the pace, this is an ideal book for end-of-day reading: engaging, but not over-stimulating, something that will allow you to enjoy settling in for the evening without tempting you to sacrifice sleep in order to keep reading.

I prepped for reading this book as I often do by searching for on-line reviews, both professional and amateur. Most of the reviews agreed on a few points:

• the murders are secondary to the central story

• the central story is, in fact, a tale of Wilde’s emotional and ethical maturation that results from his imprisonment.

I have to say I disagree.

I approached this book anticipating a character study, but found myself reading—as the cover promised and as most reviewers denied—a mystery novel. Yes, Wilde reflects a bit on his life during his time in goal, and he is somewhat changed. But the material of real interest starts about two-thirds of the way through as one begins to see the puzzle that’s being presented, but can’t yet begin to predict its answer. The mystery is presented with subtlety, but mystery it is, and as far as I’m concerned the mystery is the heart of the book.

I’m not going to say more about the plot here because I think this book is best approached “chastely,” without the bump-and-grind or quick feel provided by spoilers and near spoilers. There is, however, one last topic I’d like to remark on, and that’s the pleasure of reading a book peopled in part by writers whose work I appreciate. Wilde is the only author who is present as a character in the book, but Wilde’s friend Arthur Conan Doyle is an on-going presence. Wilde knows Conan Doyle’s work and identifies with Holmes with the same sort of smug self-confidence typical of Holmes himself. I enjoyed the amalgam created by this blending of bon mot and great detective. I’m eager now to read earlier books in the series in which Conan Doyle appears as a character. (And Bram Stoker appears in the second volume in the series—bonus!)

If you have the patience—or the need—to move slowly and take pleasure in thinking about the ways writers’ mind operate, I expect you’ll enjoy this series as much as I enjoyed the one volume I’ve read thus far.

October 23 2013 01:42 pm | Uncategorized

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