Review by Chris Redmond
Gyles Barndreth had a reputation as a top-rank professional writer even before he launched his series of novels in which Oscar Wilde, accompanied by a fictional biographer and the very real Arthur Conan Doyle, encounter and solve mysteries. This book, the fourth in the series, is as good as those that preceded it, and can be enjoyed with or without the background provided by the first three titles.
The title is sensationalist, of course. So is that of “The Sussex Vampire.” This tale has rather more of vampirism in it than does the Canonical one, but readers who stand flat-footed upon the ground can also stand reassured: the plot and solution are essentially earthbound and reasonable, not supernatural. Brandreth does, however, deliver a titillating serving of Victorian perversity, as one might hope in a book centred on the deliberately scandalous Oscar Wilde.
In this context, Arthur Conan Doyle serves pleasantly as the voice of reason. Brandreth here uses a technique that has not appeared in his previous Oscar Wilde mysteries, a shifting point of view expressed through documents and diary entries, including ACD's journals and his brief communications with his wife Louise, at home in Southsea with the baby. I found, and other readers with a Doylean predilection may also find, a sense of relief — less precious posturing, more reliability — whenever I reached a chapter in ACD's voice. And it does seem to be the authentic Doyle, which is more than can be said for the character using that name in many of the two dozen novels in which ACD appears as a character.
Telling a story in this complicated way, rather than in the voice of a perhaps naive amateur investigator who encounters one development after another and reacts to each one, requires authorial skill, something Brandreth of course has and amply demonstrates. The language is clear and readable, Wilde is witty without being unduly repetitive, the atmosphere of London in various social milieux is convincingly presented, and the author even manages to invent a character — a clergyman at the appropriately named Mortlake, south of London — who might entertainingly figure in his own novel, or novels. In short, this book may not be great literature but it is highly competent fiction and fine entertainment.