Best known as a playwright, Irish scribe Oscar Wilde displays a different side in Gyles Brandreth’s mystery series: amateur detective. In the first two page-turners, Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance and Oscar Wilde and a Game Called Murder, the flamboyant writer puts his powers of deduction – which rival those of Sherlock Holmes, created by Wilde’s friend Arthur Conan Doyle – to use solving crimes in Victorian London. The latest book, Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man’s Smile, finds him setting sail for America and then France. A mysterious death at sea leads Wilde to uncover a horrifying secret…one that puts his own life in jeopardy.
We invited Gyles to talk with us about his Oscar Wilde Mysteries, which feature plenty of literary landmarks. He shares some of his favorite Wilde-related places and also reveals the famous street he lived on while growing up in London.
NovelDestinations.com: What makes Oscar Wilde such a great detective?
Gyles Brandreth: Famously, Oscar Wilde was a brilliant conversationalist. He was, also, by every account, a careful listener and an acute observer. And he had a poet’s eye. He observed: he listened: he reflected: and then – with his extraordinary gifts of imagination and intellect – he saw the truth. He is a detective in the Sherlock Holmes tradition: he has wonderful deductive powers and a fine intellect. And, like Holmes, he is human: he has flaws, he has weaknesses. What makes Wilde particularly attractive as a character to write about is that he was such a fascinating and engaging individual. What makes him particularly useful – and credible – as a Victorian detective is that he had extraordinary access to all types and conditions of men and women, from the most celebrated to society’s outcasts, from the Prince of Wales to prostitutes.
ND: What inspired you to have Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle as a recurring character in the series?
GB: I discovered, by chance, reading Conan Doyle’s 1926 autobiography, that Doyle and Oscar Wilde had met (in 1889, introduced to one another by an American publisher) and that they had become friends. The creator of Sherlock Holmes and Oscar Wilde, wit and dandy, seemed such an unlikely couple – and yet Doyle describes their evening together as “golden.” I wanted to explore this unlikely friendship – and my first murder mystery begins on the afternoon of the day they met…exactly 120 years ago.
I was brought up in Baker Street in London – immediately opposite 221b, Sherlock Holmes’ address – and when I was a boy I was befriended by an old gentleman who had been a friend of Oscar Wilde. Conan Doyle and Wilde have been lifelong heroes of mine, and I love the idea of bringing their world to life again in my mysteries.
I do believe that Conan Doyle based the character of Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock Holmes’ elder brother, on Oscar Wilde. I hope my readers will find that Wilde makes a credible, if unexpected, amateur detective. He did say: “There is nothing quite like an unexpected death for lifting the spirits.”
ND: Along with London, your most recent mystery, Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man’s Smile, is set in Paris and the U.S. What are some of the highlights of Oscar’s overseas adventures?
GB: The extraordinary people he met – and he really met them! In the U.S., for example, Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman and P.T. Barnum. Oscar met Jumbo the Elephant – it’s true. “Which of them is the more remarkable?” asked Barnum. In the mid-West, Oscar met cowboys and silver miners and marksmen – and they were as fascinated by him as he was by them. My story begins during Wilde’s celebrated 1882 lecture tour of the U.S. and then moves to the decadent theatrical world of Paris in the 1880s as the murders multiply.
ND: What are your favorite literary landmarks associated with Oscar Wilde?
GB: The Langham Hotel in London where Wilde and Doyle first met – I often take tea there: it helps inspire my writing! And the cemetery in Paris where Wilde is buried. In July, to mark to anniversary of Oscar’s interment at the Père Lachaise cemetery in northern Paris, I went there with his grandson, Merlin Holland, to lay flowers on his grave.
For lovers of mystery this is a special year: the 200th birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, who really invented the genre, and the 150th birthday of Arthur Conan Doyle who gave the world The Great Detective in Sherlock Holmes.