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by Gyles Brandreth
Simon & Schuster, September 2008
398 pages
ISBN: 1416579753

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The second novel in the extremely engaging series of murder mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde as an amateur sleuth is even better than the first. It is tighter and moves at a faster clip. Originally published in London in May as OSCAR WILDE AND THE RING OF DEATH, the work is not only a historical mystery set in May 1892 in this case but also an old-fashioned cozy in which the author plays scrupulously fair with the reader and even provides maps and lists to help out along the way. Since there are so many differences, it's not a spoiler to speculate that Mr Brandreth may, indeed, have been influenced by two of Agatha Christie's puzzles: THE A.B.C. MURDERS and AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (TEN LITTLE INDIANS).

Wilde inadvertently sets the game afoot at a meeting of the Socrates Club, an occasional dining group he has formed. On this Sunday, May 1, he proposes that the 14 members and guests each jot down the name of the person he would most like to murder. The idea is that they will then try to guess who proposed each name and why. Despite Arthur Conan Doyle's protests, Wilde heedlessly plunges ahead with his idea. But the game becomes distinctly unpleasant when Wilde himself, his wife, and two of the guests are on the list of "victims."

It becomes deadly when the proposed victims begin to die, one each day in the order in which their names were drawn from the bag. Wilde cannot be sure whether any one is actually murder or merely coincidence till a parrot suffers the third death. At that point he knows there is a vicious killer in their midst. Since Wilde's was the 13th name to be drawn, he realizes he has only until Friday the 13th to solve the killings. In following various leads, Wilde relies on his own faithful Watson, his friend Robert Sherard, who in actuality stood by the playwright till the bitter end and who, in fiction, serves as his chronicler recalling the facts from the distance of September 1939 as war clouds hang over Europe.

Sherard makes the point that Wilde "made a fine detective because, though he was a poet, he was also a classicist. His way with words was elaborate and ornate, flowery and full of fanciful flourishes, but his way of thinking was precise." In bringing this case to its ingenious close, complete with an assembly of all the suspects back at the dining table, Wilde makes use of both his artist's eye for detail and his scholarly mind, rigidly trained in logic. Doyle admits that he is as adept as Sherlock Holmes in following leads to their inevitable conclusion.

Relishing Wilde's quips and aphorisms is fully as much fun for readers as solving the murders. Throughout, one is treated to many lines from Wilde's writings and conversations. One also has the added pleasure of "discovering" that Wilde handed Doyle some of the latter's best moments. For example, Wilde points out "the curious incident of the parrot in the morning" here, an idea Doyle will build on in his short story "Silver Blaze," written later in the year. Mr. Brandreth has slipped in his own creations so effortlessly that one would never guess they do not come from Wilde. Take a line such as "Nowhere is there more true feeling, and nowhere worse taste, than in a graveyard." Wilde or Brandreth?

The author's skill at mixing history and fiction is equally adroit. Ten of the 14 men present at the fateful Socrates Club dinner are historical personages. In addition to Wilde, Sherard, and Doyle, they include the latter's future brother-in-law, William Hornung (later creator of the Raffles stories), Bram Stoker (soon to be of Dracula fame), Lord Alfred Douglas, and his brother. Facts that the author has unearthed some of which become part of the story, a few of which are mentioned only in Sherard's postscript are fascinating. For example, the playwright-actor Charles Brookfield, one of the 14, did indeed parody Wilde and informed against him at his trial in 1895; Brookfield also wrote and starred in the first Sherlock Holmes play.

Would that cultural history were always presented in such a pleasant fashion! One looks forward to Wilde's third outing as an amateur sleuth.

Reviewed by Drewey Wayne Gunn, July 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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