Sunday, August 2, 2009

Book Review: Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man's Smile

Title: Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man's Smile: A Mystery (Oscar Wilde Mysteries)
Author: Gyles Brandreth
Rating: ****
Tags: mystery, series, oscar wilde, arthur conan doyle, robert sharard, paris actors

This is the third of Gyles Brandreth's mystery series with Oscar Wilde as the central character and Wilde's real-life friend Robert Sherard as the narrator. In the first book of the series, Brandreth answers some questions about the genesis of the series. When he was a boy, he got to know a man who had known Wilde and shared stories about him, and some of his first and most favorite books were those of Oscar Wilde as well as Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. He read both over and over. He was amazed and delighted to find out that Wilde and Conan Doyle were friends.

The third book in the series jumps around in time. It begins in London in 1890. Wilde, his biographer Robert Sherard, and Arthur Conan Doyle visit Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors, and Sherard gives Conan Doyle a manuscript of earlier days, including the meeting and early friendship of Sherard and Wilde. That tale is the bulk of the book. It covers first Wilde's lecture tour in the United States in 1882 and his meeting with a gambler and gunslinger named Eddie Garstrang. On the ship back to London, Wilde spends much time with the La Grange acting troupe, and begins working with Edmond La Grange on a French translation of Hamlet.

After a short time in London Wilde goes on to Paris where he works with La Grange and partakes of the incredible Parisian social life. He meets Robert Sherard, only 21, and they begin a life-long friendship. Strange things happen around the La Grange troupe, and Oscar's observant eye takes it all in and, in the end, solves a series of unnatural deaths, beginning with the death of old Madame La Grange's poodle aboard ship. The dog's body was put into Oscar's trunk.

The book has a series of twists and turns, at least one of which looked at first like weak plotting but is redeemed by a later plot twist. The characters are endlessly fascinating, in part because Brandreth pulls in as much accurate history as he can. Paris in the 1880s becomes its own character, full of art, creativity and decadence. Sex and drugs they had in plenty, even if lacking the rock and roll.

Those who wish to see Wilde as a gay icon will be disappointed in this book as his homosexuality is barely hinted at. I have not read the second book in the series, but see in a plot summary that it introduces Lord Alfred Douglas, so it may go into that subject more. Brandreth plans nine books in the series, following Wilde throughout his short life (he was 46 at his death) including his disgrace and imprisonment.

Brandreth is not, to my mind, the greatest writer in the world. But the two books in the series that I have read are interesting and well worth reading. Wilde is a character that endlessly fascinates.

Publication Touchstone (2009), Paperback, 400 pages
Publication date 2009
ISBN 1416534857 / 9781416534853

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