Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death
by Gyles Brandreth
John Murray, 395pp, 14.99
AS IF OSCAR WILDE HADN'T DONE enough in his 46 years on this planet, Gyles Brandreth envisions a new role for him altogether: a starring role as a detective in what this, the second book of a projected ten, confirms as one of the most enjoyable crime series around.
Brandreth's portrait of the artist as No 1 literary detective is as convincing as you'd expect from a man for whom Wilde has been a hero since childhood. The dialogue is as breezily confident as it needs to be for one of the most dazzling wits of his century, as much at home in the demi-monde as high society. Yet behind the bombardment of bon mots, Brandreth's Wilde is as generous, good-natured and considerate as the man was himself: Arthur Conan Doyle once observed of Wilde that "there wasn't a grain of coarseness" about him. There isn't here either. What there is, instead, is an almost perfect puzzle to match his powers.
At a meeting of the dining club to which Wilde has invited 13 of his friends (Bram Stoker, Walter Sickert, Arthur Conan Doyle among them), he asks them to play a game of "Murder" in which each of his guests secretly writes down the name of the person they would most like to kill if they knew they could get away with it; the rest then work out who's chosen which victim and why. All quite amusing – until, one by one, the people chosen start dying in real life on successive days. The names of Oscar and his beloved wife Constance are the last two on the murder list.
The mechanics of plot are cleverly drawn up – helpfully, with a map of central London in 1892, drawings of seating arrangements at the "Murder" dinner held at the Cadogan Hotel, lists of suspects and the like. Brandreth knows his late Victorian London as well as he knows his Wilde (and, come to that, his Conan Doyle), so the plot comes with an impressive amount of detailing.
This matters, because Brandreth's jeu d'esprit relies for its success on rooting apparent implausibility (a crime-busting Oscar Wilde) in fact. The more the boundaries are blurred, the more prepared we are to suspend our disbelief. Of the 13 gathered round the Cadogan Hotel table for the "Murder" game, it helps that at least half a dozen of them are given back-stories or described in terms that check out with their biographies.
So here's Oscar's beloved Bosie, 31, but so young-looking that many people thought he was still at school (true). His brother, Lord Drumlanrig, already fearing that unfounded rumours of his own relationship with the soon-to-be Liberal PM Lord Rosebery would bring about the latter's downfall (again, true). Here's Arthur Conan Doyle, a friend of Wilde's after they spent "a golden evening together" in 1889 (true again, though Brandreth's assertion that Conan Doyle modelled Mycroft, Sherlock's brother, on Wilde is just an intelligent guess).
As the details (some of them, admittedly, quite arcane) mount, so does credibility. Round that table at the Cadogan, we realise, there are some characters who obviously cannot be the murderer because the rules of the game entail not twisting the historical record too violently; other characters are equally obviously more likely suspects. Yet right at the end, when the storytelling's done, Brandreth drops a quite incendiary fact into the mix, and we start to appreciate that the dividing line between fact and fiction might be a lot thinner than we think.
When he was a boy, Brandreth once told me, he used to play regular games of Scrabble with the retired headmaster of his boarding school, who was then a centenarian. Mr Badley had been a friend of Wilde's, who sent his eldest son to his school, and he often talked about the great man.
"Oscar was a delightful person: charming and brilliant, with the most perfect manners of any man I ever met," Badley told the young Brandreth. "Because of his imprisonment and disgrace, he is seen nowadays as a tragic figure. That should not be his lasting memorial ... He was such fun."
That is indeed the portrait of the aesthete as a young detective that we have here. As we take our seats at the table of Cadogan Hotel with Bosie, Bram Stoker and Conan Doyle, sip Krug at Gatti's or take a phaeton to Victoria in pursuit of a murderer, it's not the martyred gay icon who joins us, but a charismatically charming man in whose company it is impossible to be bored.
He slips easily into the 21st century, does this Oscar (imagine, if you can, an even higher-wattage Stephen Fry), just as, thanks to Brandreth, we as readers are able to travel effortlessly back to join him in his own age. It is a deliciously enjoyable journey.