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?]