Gyles Brandreth Answers Questions about the Oscar Wilde Mysteries
How did the idea to write a murder mystery series, with Oscar Wilde as one of the main characters, come about?
How did it come about? It's a long story, so I'll try to keep it short.
Since I was a boy, I have been an avid admirer of both the works of Oscar Wilde and the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (For the first ten years of my life I lived a stone's throw from Tite Street, the London home of Sherlock Holmes. When I was ten, my family moved to Baker Street and we lived on the block that includes 221B.)
Anyway...about ten years ago, in the late 1990s, by chance, I picked up a copy of Memories and Adventures, the autobiography of Arthur Conan Doyle, published in 1924, and discovered, on page 94, that Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde were friends. I was amazed. It would be hard to imagine an odder couple.
They met in 1889, at the newly built Langham Hotel in Portland Place in London's West End. They were brought together by an American publisher, J. M. Stoddart, who happened to be in England commissioning material for Lippincott's Magazine. Evidently, Oscar, then thirty-five, was on song that night and Conan Doyle, thirty, was impressed -- and charmed. The upshot of the evening was that Mr. Stoddart got to publish both Arthur Conan Doyle's second Sherlock Holmes story, The Sign of Four, and Oscar Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and I was inspired to write the first of the Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries.
What details about the real Oscar Wilde do you find most interesting? Did you strive to portray him as accurately as possible in the novel, or did you enhance his character to match the story?
I hope the Oscar Wilde in my murder mysteries is the real Oscar Wilde. I have tried to present him as I believe he was. I have tried to get inside his skin -- and his head and his heart. I think if you are going to spend many months writing about somebody you've got to be a little in love with them. You've certainly got to want to spend time in their company. Oscar Wilde was a remarkable man -- brilliant, flawed, endlessly fascinating. For me it has been an honor, challenge, and delight to spend time in his company. Oscar said he had put his talent into his work and his genius into his life. I want to reveal his genius!
Wilde has been a figure of fascination to me for as long as I can remember. I was born in 1948 in a British Forces Hospital in Germany, where, in the aftermath of the Second World War, my father was serving as a legal officer with the Allied Control Commission. He counted among his colleagues H. Montgomery Hyde, who, in 1948, published the first full account of the trials of Oscar Wilde. It was the first nonfiction book I ever read! In 1961, when I was thirteen, I was given the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde and read them from cover to cover -- yes, all 1,118 pages. I can't have understood much, but I relished the language and learned by heart his "Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young," for example: "Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others."
What elements of the real Oscar Wilde's character do you hope to be able to convey to the reader? How do you think someone would view Oscar Wilde after reading this book?
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.... That's why I think he makes a brilliant detective in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes. And just as Holmes had his weakness for cocaine, Wilde has his weaknesses, too.
What makes Wilde particularly attractive as a character to write about is that he was such an original and engaging human being. 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 common prostitutes.
What elements of Robert Sherard's life and personality do you hope to convey to the reader?
Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle is central to Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance -- as he will be to the sequels in the series -- but, in my book, he is not Wilde's Dr. Watson. That role falls to Robert Sherard, a journalist, poet, ladies' man, and Wilde's first, most frequent and most loyal biographer. Sherard first met Wilde in 1882 in Paris and, throughout their friendship, which lasted until Wilde's death in 1900, he kept a detailed journal of their time together.
I feel a real kinship with Robert Sherard. We have several things in common. We went to the same Oxford College. As young men we both went out of our way to "collect" some of the great figures of the day. I have been a writer and reporter very much in Sherard's tradition. (I am also a Francophile as he was.) I trust (for my wife's sake!) that I am not quite the ladies' man that Sherard turned out to be -- but Sherard's heterosexuality is important to the story. Because Oscar Wilde was imprisoned on account of his homosexuality, he is seen by some exclusively as a gay martyr/icon. He is, of course, much more than that. The homosexual demimonde of the 1880s and 1890s will certainly feature in some of my stories, but these aren't in any sense "gay murder mysteries." These are for the general reader -- and Sherard represents the general reader.
Why did you choose to tell the story through the eyes of Robert Sherard instead of through Oscar's eyes?
My model for these stories are the great stories created by Arthur Conan Doyle. Oscar Wilde is my Holmes. Robert Sherard is my Watson. And just as Holmes was a hero to Watson, so Wilde is a hero to Sherard. Sherard reports the action as it happens -- and can give us an account of Oscar's genius in action in a way that Oscar himself would never have considered doing.
Throughout the book, there are many succinctly worded quotes that seem as if the real Oscar Wilde may have actually said them. Did you pull any of these from historical information about Mr. Wilde, or are they written based on what you believe he would have said?
Some of the lines I give to Oscar are ones that history tells us he came up with himself -- or variations on them. Others are lines of my own devising. I hope you can't tell the difference!
I feel quite justified in using Wilde's own words -- and for a reason. In the 1960s, I was a pupil at Bedales School in England, where, in 1895, Cyril, the older of the Wilde's two sons, had been at school. The founder of Bedales, John Badley, was a friend of Wilde's and was still alive and living in the school grounds when I was a boy. Mr. Badley told me (in 1965, at around the time of his hundredth birthday) that he believed much of Oscar's wit was "studied." He recalled staying at a house party in Cambridge with Oscar and travelling back with him to London by train. Assorted fellow guests came to the station to see them on their way. At the moment the train was due to pull out, Wilde delivered a valedictory quip, then the guard blew the whistle and waved his green flag, the admirers on the platform cheered, Wilde sank back into his seat and the train moved off. Unfortunately, it only moved a yard or two before juddering to a halt. The group on the platform gathered again outside the compartment occupied by Wilde and Badley. Oscar hid behind his newspaper and hissed at his companion, "They've had my parting shot. I only prepared one."
Oscar worked on his witticisms and, frequently, he tried out lines and ideas on his friends and then, if he liked them, used them again in his essays, stories, and plays. One of the big challenges for me with these books is to bring Oscar's voice to life. Wherever possible, I have let him help me!
The book takes place in the 1890s. What led you to pick this point in history to write about?
My story begins in 1889 because that's when Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle met -- and it is also one of the most exciting periods in history.
I am planning nine books in the series and they will cut back and forth across Oscar Wilde's remarkable career -- from the first murder he encounters as a brilliant young Oxford undergraduate in the 1870s to the time, shortly before his death in 1900, age only forty-six, when, to secure food and drink, under the name Sebastian Melmoth, he solves crimes for money.
Eventually the Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries will follow Wilde's travels across Europe and America and touch on many of the extraordinary -- and traumatic -- events in his roller-coaster life: his upbringing in Ireland; his audience with the pope at the Vatican; his adventure-filled lecture tour of the United States; his triumphs as a poet and playwright in London, Paris, and New York; his fall from grace; his trial at the Old Bailey; his imprisonment; his exile...
If you read the Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries I hope you will get to know (and admire) Wilde as I do. I also hope you will get a rich -- and realistic -- flavor of the remarkable era in which he lived -- the age of Jack the Ripper, Queen Victoria, and Mark Twain.
This book reads like a jigsaw puzzle -- all the pieces of the mystery unite at the end to reveal the killer. What was your motivation for writing in this style? Were you a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle and his famous character, Sherlock Holmes?
I was brought up in London. Until I was twelve, I lived in Oscar's part of town. Then my parents moved to Baker Street and from the kitchen window of our apartment I could see into the window of what I believed to be 221B Baker Street, the address of the world's foremost consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes.
As a boy, I read every one of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories -- again and again. At school, when I was thirteen, I wrote a play called A Study in Sherlock. Detective fiction has always been my favourite form of fiction. I love the novels of Agatha Christie. I adore the Lord Peter Wimsey stories created by Dorothy L. Sayers. Among contemporary writers of detective fiction, my favorite is probably P. D. James.
How much of the information about Bellotti's club is based on real events?
I am not going to tell you! I want you to believe all of it. I don't want you to be looking for the moment when fact meets fiction. By the time I had finished, it all seemed wholly real to me. Perhaps it was...
Upon finishing this book, readers will inevitably wish to explore the writings of Wilde, Conan Doyle, and Sherard. What works do you recommend they start with?
This first book is set in 1889-90 when Oscar is writing The Picture of Dorian Gray and Arthur is writing The Sign of Four, so I'd start with those two. As far as I know, none of Robert Sherard's books is any longer in print, but the one he was writing in 1889 was a mystery intriguingly titled Agatha's Quest.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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