Thursday, 7 January 2010

Historical - Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders

I've been reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (for some reason I keep wanting to say 'Wildfowl' Hall...) off and on since the new year started. I'm not all that inspired by it but will persevere. I suspect, like a lot of books, it will get better as it goes along but when I went down with a cold several days ago I decided I needed a faster paced, more entertaining, book to read while I sniffed and sneezed by the fire and the snow came down outside. (We are currently snowed in.) To that end I picked up a book from my tbr mountain, Oscar Wilde and the Candlight Murders by Gyles Brandreth.

The good die first,

And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust

Burn to the socket.

William Wordsworth

The narrator in the this fictional story is one, Robert Sherard, who was the great-grandson of poet, William Wordsworth. He existed in real life and was, in fact, a good friend of writer, poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde.

The story begins in 1889 with Oscar Wilde arriving at an address in London to meet a pupil of his, sixteen year old, Billy Wood. What greets him as he enters the room is a dead body. Billy has been brutally murdered but not only that, he is surrounded by lit candles - the murder was a ritual killing.

Oscar takes flight and doesn't report the murder until the next day. By which time the body has been removed by persons unknown and the police think he might have hallucinated the whole thing. Enter Arthur Conan Doyle, a young writer who has just started a new crime series about an unusual detective, Sherlock Holmes. Oscar is completely smitten with the two books published so far and the two writers immediatelty become friends. Arthur's advice to Oscar is to go and see a close friend of his, Inspector Aiden Fraser, at Scotland Yard, who he is sure will take him seriously. Accompanied by his close friend, Robert Sherard, Oscar does just this but, in the event, even Inspector Fraser is sceptical about the writer's story.

Oscar decides to investigate himself, using the methods that Sherlock Holmes would have used. To help him - his Dr. Watson in all but name - is Robert Sherard, down on his luck and going through a messy divorce. But even he, with his tangled and messy romantic life, is unprepared for the Victorian underworld Oscar Wilde introduces him to...

Well then, on the surface this was a light, quick read that is fun and perhaps not as dark as it might have been. Gyles Brandreth is well known in the UK as a TV presenter and one time Tory MP and with his sense of humour you might expect this kind of novel from him. One of the reasons I particularly wanted to read this is because he is one of the few people who appears on TV to promote books and encourage people to read. I personally have a lot of time for him.

The thing about this book though is that there is a bit more to it than is immediately obvious. It's clear that Brandreth has done a lot of research into Oscar Wilde's life and it's all very interesting. I had no idea for instance, that he was married with two sons and was a devoted family man. Things about Wilde's trial are mentioned which leave the reader to speculate on whether or not his trial was a fair one. And Wilde's lifestyle, flamboyant and generous, is gone into in great detail. This is not an explicit book in any way but the alternate part of the writer's life is talked about in a matter-of-fact manner and that might not be for everyone.

You can probably tell that I liked this book rather a lot. I like it when a book inspires me to find out more about some facet of its content and in this case it's Oscar Wilde himself.

I own the biography by Richard Ellmann so will read that this year. I'll try to watch the Stephen Fry movie and I'll certainly be reading The Picture of Dorian Gray which is mentioned a few times in this book. I'm already a Sherlock Holmes reader so that aspect is already covered!

Brandreth has so far written three of these Wilde novels, the next being Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death. I'm assuming there will be a finite number as the books start in 1889 and Wilde's trial was in 1895 I believe. Perhaps Mr. Brandreth didn't want to get into an endless series, I don't know. I do know that I will read them all as this first one was cracking good read.

My first book for the Year of the Historical challenge, which is being hosted by Lurv A La Mode.


DesLily said...

*sigh* this one sounds good Cath. I like that doyle is pulled into the investigation.. it reminds me of drood where you read names you know and some characters are real and some are not.. i may put this on the wish list so I don't forget about it. Thanks!.. I think lol

booksplease said...

I enjoyed this one too and have been meaning to read the others and more about Wilde as well. but you know what it's like - too many books and not enough time.

We're snowed in too.

Cath said...

Pat: I just e.mailed you so take it off your wishlist if you've put it on, but don't hold your breath as it's going to be a while before I can get to the PO.

Margaret: I do know what it's like. But I also know the library has book 2 so it can wait for when I'm in the mood for it.

I think half the country must be snowed in...

Val said...

That sounds very tempting... Thanks Cath
A nice amount of interesting information ...I don't feel that I know what it says but I do feel I will probably enjoy finding out!

Cath said...

Val: it was just that really - a very enjoyable book. Not too heavy but with plenty of background information to make it feel slightly more than a light, fluffy read.

Susan said...

How do you do this? How do you write these wonderful reviews that make me want to read these books??? I was arguing with Bride of the Book God (last year) over whether using a real person was a good idea or not - but you've made it sound like the author has tried to stay close to the real person - so I just might give this a try. I'll let you and Bride know!

Cath said...

Susan: LOL... I'm really sorry!!Sometimes I suffer from a surfeit of enthusiasm - I think it comes from not really having anyone to talk books with in RL. My daughters read but I don't see them every day and they don't always *get* my reading choices either. Hubby reads more than me (fast reader) but is not one who really wants to chat about them. Consequently, I get on my blog and turn into a mad woman. ;-p

For me personally the jury is still out with this using of real people in books. If it's a long time ago I'm okay with it but when it's more recent, no. It feels intrusive. Brandreth's treatment of Oscar Wilde in his book was very sypathetic, imo. He'd done his research and none of it felt intrusive - just fun. On my library pile I have Daphne by Justine Picardie and I'm dying to see how I feel about that when I get to it. I do agree that's it's a difficult subject.