Oscar Wilde and a Game Called Murder by Gyles Brandreth

Review by Chris Redmond

The second volume of Gyles Brandreth's novels about Oscar Wilde as a detective is every bit as good as the first volume, Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance, and that makes it very good indeed. The weary Sherlockian reader turns with relief from hack “pastiches” to novels like this one, perhaps not quite literature but at least “genre fiction” that reveals both a brain and a heart — and oh, that's written in articulate, grammatical English, not a clanger or an anachronism from beginning to end.

Sherlock Holmes does not appear in this narrative, at least not as a living being. Arthur Conan Doyle does, and (the action being set in 1892) he is much burdened with Mr. Holmes, preoccupied with the necessity of killing off his detective so that he can move along to other kinds of literary activity. ACD figures as one member of an informal club of literary men who are caught up in an unpleasant sequence of crimes and incidents. Some of them will be familiar to most Sherlockians, including not just ACD but his brother-in-law, Willie Hornung; actor Charles Brookfield, the first man to portray Sherlock Holmes on stage; Bram Stoker, who created Dracula; and, of course, Wilde.

Gyles Brandreth, the author of this excellent book, is a former Member of Parliament as well as a writer and scholar. In that capacity he has written serious biographical work about Wilde, and evidently formed a clear and sympathetic idea of Wilde's character and achievement. In these mystery novels based on genuine men and situations (I look forward eagerly to reading more of them), he presents Wilde through the eyes of Robert Sherard, a real but little-known figure who was his friend and early biographer. The picture that results is entirely convincing and almost entirely appealing, a Wilde whose flaws made him only more interesting, a Wilde one would wish to have as a friend.

For a Sherlockian reader, the picture of Doyle is especially important, and perhaps not quite so attractive. ACD figures as usually worried and fussy, asking whether risqué topics are entirely suitable for present company, perpetually anxious to catch his train back to Norwood to his ailing wife "Touie." I do not recall previously knowing of him as an amateur sculptor — spending hours on a clay creation that is to be a birthday present for his sister — but it seems entirely plausible for the man who was always throwing himself into his latest enthusiasm.

Two or three of the characters in this narrative are entirely fictional. At least one of them deserves to be the central figure in novels of his own, but probably will never be. Gyles Brandreth should be encouraged to write faster, so there will be more for the rest of us to read — soon.