Running Wilde

OSCAR WILDE AND A DEATH OF NO IMPORTANCE By Gyles Brandreth.

“Oscar Wilde and the Death of No Importance” is another celebrity murder mystery, this time starring the poet, playwright and unwilling martyr to what Wilde called “the love that dare not speak its name.”

"The only thing worse than being talked about is not being paid for appearing in someone else's novel."

Wilde is drawn into murder when, while keeping an appointment, finds not the person he expected, but the bloody body of a boy. Not just any boy, but one whom Wilde befriended. He found the boy so beautiful — “he was blessed with a natural gift — an athletic voice, an easy grace, and such a sparkle in his eye!” — that he dedicates himself to finding his killer, with his faithful Watson by his side in the form of the poet and future biographer Robert Sherard.

Given Wilde’s tragic fate, it’s no surprise that Brandreth opens the first of his planned nine-book series [!] with a tour of London’s homosexual underground, with Wilde leading the way, bright as a sunbeam, a chatty and knowledgeable guide. Brandreth deftly underplays this theme, never overtly stating what is really going on until the end, which shows a wonderful restraint. Oscar is clearly besotted with the beauty of boys, and as we follow the thread of Billy’s life, we encounter characters who give off the faint whiff of corruption. Some of the scenes, such as a visit to a monthly luncheon attended by men and boys, give off an unwholesome vibe without descending into smuttiness. These are proper English gentlemen we’re dealing with, and if they give their word that their behavior is innocent, who are we to disagree?

In a genre in which any historical figure is fair game, Wilde has rarely been used. Walter Satterthwait cast Wilde the up-and-coming aesthetic in a frontier town in “Wilde West.” Russell A. Brown matched Wilde with Holmes back in 1988, when gay fiction was bubbling into mainstream lists, and Roberta Rogow casts him in “The Problem of the Evil Editor” as a murder suspect, a case investigated by Arthur Conan Doyle (who also shows up in Brandreth’s book) and Lewis Carroll (who does not).

Of the lot, Brandreth treats Wilde the best. The author is a jack-of-all-trades (BBC broadcaster, theater producer, royal biographer, member of Parliament) that England seems to turn out with the fecundity of China turning out toys, and he has had a lifelong interest in Wilde, reading the works and even encountering, as a public schoolboy, a man who told him stories about the Wilde he knew.

Brandreth portrays Wilde as charming and vigorous, and most of the book is happily spent following his lead and listening to his conversation. He is also given to making Holmsian deductions of his own.

“I know nothing of her,” said Oscar, lightly, “beyond the obvious fact that she is a widow, recently arrived from Dublin, who, having worked in the theatre, as dresser to some of Ireland’s most distinguished leading ladies, is now set to try her fortune in the capital of the empire. She will do well here, do you not think? She is evidently a woman of spirit, though understandably wearied by her long walk from Ludgate Circus this morning.” 

Given his powers of observation and intelligence, Wilde is thoroughly capable of investigating a murder, and Sherard plays his Watson in the Nigel Bruce mold, at times bumbling and incomprehending of Wilde’s deductions.

The only weak point in the book is the actual murder. A reasonably aware reader who takes a moment would have no trouble figuring out who killed Billy Wood and probably why. Brandreth plays fair with the reader, but the clues are limited and the suspects few, and more than that I cannot say without risking a spoiler to those who want to read it.

What carries the reader through the book, however, is Oscar. He dominates, he charms, he talks and talks and talks. But most of all, he displays the importance of being an earnest detective.

How did I get this book?: Review copy sent by publisher.

Score (7-100): 82

Genre (1-15): 10
Realism (1-15): 13
Character (1-15): 14
Setting (1-15): 13
Theme (1-15): 14
Style (1-15): 12
Bonus (1-10): 6 Wilde is depicted as a poet, a lover of beauty, a gentleman, a father and a husband. It’s perfectly understandable why his secret life would be a shock to his friends and the country.

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