By Gyles Brandreth
I picked this book up from the library on a whim (despite the truly hideous cover*), without any foreknowledge, figuring I like historical mysteries and I like Oscar Wilde. After starting it, it occurred to me that I’m not entirely sure I like historical novels that fictionalize real-life characters however, and this proved no exception.
Actually, much like with The Hangman’s Daughter, I found it frustrating that I didn’t know the actual historical events better in order to judge what was true to the real-life characters and what the author was inventing for the story.
The basic premise of the story is that Oscar Wilde meets up with Arthur Conan Doyle in order to solve a high-society murder mystery with some assistance from Bram Stoker. It sounds kind of cool, right? Oscar Wilde is a really interesting historical figure, very witty and extensively quoted.
Here’s the thing, though: fictionalizing him by shoehorning his various well-known quotes into fictional conversations comes across as lazy writing and makes his character almost completely insufferable.
Oscar Wilde is the protagonist and central detective of this book, which is the fourth book of an on-going Oscar Wilde historical mysteries series. All the other characters describe him as irresistibly charming, but through the scenes of the book, he comes across as melodramatic, egotistical, and often inconsiderate of those around him.
Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was all of those things in real life, as well, but I found him almost unbearable in this novel, always spouting off some witticism, regardless of whether it is actually pertinent to the discussion. He seemed to be showing off his cleverness at all times and that gets to be a bore really quickly in real life.
Poor Conan Doyle is described as sort of doddering and hide-bound (apparently Oscar Wilde’s brilliant detection is the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes), and my sympathies were entirely with him throughout the entire book. Toward the middle of the book, when I had to really slog through it (it picked up a bit toward the end when the mystery itself stepped up), Conan Doyle writes to his wife, “And Oscar, I confess, I am beginning to find rather ‘too much.’” Amen, Conan Doyle. Amen.
*Excuse my going off on a graphic-design tangent, but when pulling the image of the cover of this book, I saw the covers of the previous books in the series, and they are just really attractive and create a really nice set that I can’t figure out what happened with the design of this cover. [Ah! With a very little of research (reading the reviews on amazon), I found that this book was previously released under a different title (Oscar Wilde and the Nest of Vipers) and with a cover matching the others. I would say that the new cover design seems like a mistaken attempt to capitalize on the vampire craze right now, but I did pick it up myself, didn’t I?]
I also have some issues with fictionalizing historical characters, because then I’m never sure what is real and what is made up. Give me historical accuracy or straight up fiction, but don’t mix the two.
Among other things, by inserting fictional information, the author then denies some of the historical information, such as the fact that Conan-Doyle based Sherlock Holmes on Dr. Joseph Bell, one of his teachers at university.
It’s odd that I don’t have the same problem with RPF (real person fiction) which is fanfiction stories around (almost entirely current) celebrities. It’s probably because I just don’t care as much about modern celebrities as I do about historical ones, plus they’re already having to deal with tabloids so it’s not making the situation any worse than it already is.
I think I agree with you on the fictionalizing historical characters; the fine line seems to be that I do enjoy historical fiction, just not with real-life historical characters. I’ll need to try to remember that for the future.
I also get kind of embittered when these stories take away one historical figure’s achievements in order to augment another’s. Like, it wasn’t enough that Oscar Wilde is a brilliant poet, storyteller and satirist, now he also is a Holmes-level detective. And no credit for Conan Doyle, who in this book just sort of trailed after Wilde, copying his observations instead of actually plotting his own ingenious stories. (I did not know that he based Holmes on one of his teachers; THAT sounds like an interesting story.)
Interesting! I didn’t know that this series existed. Thanks!
^ Check out this blog, you guys; I haven’t had a chance to really delve in, but I browsed the most recent entries, and it’s really funny!
Wow, those original covers are SO much better.
But the issue of the ugly cover aside, I think I might not read this because I love Oscar Wilde and I don’t want to read anything that turns me against him. He’s definitely charming in my head and I’m not sure I want to mess with that.
Your being on Conan Doyle’s side reminds me of how I recently went to see the latest Twilight movie (which is terrible) and realized about halfway through that I am now officially neither Team Jacob or Team Edward–I am Team Bella’s Dad. He is the only one in that whole mess who seems to have any sense or any sense of humor.
It was weird reading the book because I found the character of Oscar Wilde so unbearable, but at the same time the other characters kept reiterating how charming and charismatic he is, so I was already caught in between two different perspectives. I’ve got to believe that he actually must have been somewhere in the middle. At the very least, he seems to have been too smart to constantly be repeating his own aphorisms over and over again. Basically, reading the book made me dislike the book’s Oscar Wilde, not Oscar Wilde himself.
And, yeah, that’s how I felt when I read Twilight. The only character I had any empathy for was the poor dad, which made me think I wasn’t the correct audience for that series.