Right of Death
Game Called Murder
Oscar Wilde and The Ring of Death
(title in UK)
Oscar Wilde and A Game Called Murder (title in USA)
| Reading Group
Guide | Q
& A with Gyles
A Converstation with Gyles Brandreth, Author:
1. What was your inspiration for this series of books?
As a child I lived in London, in an apartment block overlooking 221b Baker Street. Sherlock Holmes was my boyhood hero. When I was a little older, I was sent to a boarding school in England - a school called Bedales in Hampshire - where I met the founder of the school, an elderly gentleman called John Badley. Mr Badley (1863-1965) had been a friend of Oscar and Constance Wilde and the Wildes’ elder son, Cyril, was a pupil at Bedales. Mr Badley told me fascinating stories about his friendship with Oscar Wilde and, as a consequence, Oscar Wilde became my first real-life hero. My series of Oscar Wilde murder mysteries was inspired when I read the autobiography of Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and discovered that he and Oscar Wilde had met and become friends. The first of my Oscar Wilde mysteries - Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance - begins on the afternoon of the actual day on which Wilde and Conan Doyle first met.
2. At a young age, you memorized Oscar Wilde’s Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young. Years later, which phrases from this list remain with you the most strongly? Are there any expressions from his collected works that have stuck with you as ”words to live by?”
There are so many. My favorite among his Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young changes from day to day. Today, I think I will opt for this one: ’One should always be a little improbable’. I don’t believe that Wilde necessarily ”believed” in every one of his maxims: sometimes he just said something simply to be amusing - or perverse. In my stories I have used many of the remarks that we know that he made. I have also been bold enough to invent a few for him myself. I am hoping that you won’t be able to tell which is which. What I do know (because Mr Badley told me this when I was a boy and he was 97) is that Oscar Wilde often rehearsed and repeated favorite lines, adapting and improving them as time went by. I am especially fond of the advice he once gave Mr Badley : ’Murder? Never commit murder. A gentleman should never do anything he cannot talk about at dinner.’
3. The book has vivid descriptions of 19th century food, drink, dress, and social conventions, not to mention its details of early magic and boxing. What sources did you draw from when researching for this story?
My grandparents were Victorians, alive and well at the end of the nineteenth century. My father was born in 1910. The period that I am writing about does not seem to me to be that far away: I can feel it, see it, touch it, smell it in my head. I have met with and known people who remembered late-Victorian London; I have read countless newspapers, magazines, books and plays of the period. I can see and touch much of Victorian London in a literal sense, too. The Cadogan Hotel, where this story is set, is still standing; it’s still open for business; you can stay there; you can even stay in the very room at the hotel in which Wilde was arrested in 1895. Anywhere featured in the novel that still exists I have visited. I am very anxious that every detail should be as accurate as possible. If you spot any errors, do let me know. Oscar Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland, spotted an error in the first book in the series. I had Oscar drinking the wrong kind of champagne! When you read these books I want you to feel wholly confident that every detail is accurate. I know about magic because I have written a biography of Harry Houdini; I know about parliament because I used to be an elected member of the British House of Commons; I know about Victorian houses in London because I live in one. Some of what you read I have experienced. Some of it I have researched. And some of it, of course, I have simply invented.
4. How did you develop the plot for this book? Did you know how the mystery would end before you started writing?
I began with the idea of the gentlemen’s dining club - the Sophocles Club - and the notion of playing ’Oscar’s Game’ every time the club met for dinner . . . By the time I began writing the novel I had worked out what was going to happen in quite some detail, but, inevitably, as the story progressed, I found that not everything was proceeding according to plan. Plots developments I hadn’t anticipated started to appear . . . That said, my story is firmly rooted in reality. Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Walter Sickert, Charles Brookfield, the Marquess of Queensberry and his sons: these are all real people. Everything that I tell you in the Postscript is true. The fun for me is taking real happenings - the first night of Lady Windermere’s Fan, for example - and adding an extra dimension: the murder mystery dimension.
5. If you met Oscar Wilde today, do you think you would like him? Do you share any of his character traits? Do you think he would like you?
I am sure I would like Oscar Wilde enormously. He was a very friendly and generous man, as well as being brilliant and wonderfully witty. Writing these books, I feel that I do know him and the more I write the better I get to know him. He is not fault-free (by any means), but it is his very complexity that makes him so compelling. I don’t think that I am like him - at all! If I am like anyone in the book, it is Robert Sherard: I see myself as Wilde’s biographer. I hope he would have liked me as he liked Sherard. He was a generous spirited man and not judgmental. I think he would have been amused by my endeavors.
6. In the acknowledgements section, you comment that ”writing a book is a lonely business.” How does your time spent writing compare to your varied experiences in public speaking?
Writing a book is indeed a lonely business: it involves discipline and many hours of concentrated labor. When he was asked what it took to be a writer, didn’t Mark Twain reply, ’Application! Applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair . . .’ When I am writing I am at my desk from about 8.30 am to 6.30 pm six days a week and I try to avoid answering the telephone, checking e-mails, human distraction of any kind. When I am writing I am not living in the twenty-first century: I am locked into the world of the 1880s and 1890s. I like it there. And I don’t mind the loneliness of writing too much, because when I’m not writing I am surrounded by people - my family when I am at home; my readers when I am out promoting a book; dozens of technicians when I am working in TV; hundreds on stage and out front when I am working in the theatre; thousands of people, even, when I am making speeches at conferences and at awards ceremonies. I am lucky: I feel that in my life I get the best of two worlds.
7. Your career spans across a huge range of disciplines, including time spent working as a journalist, businessman, broadcaster, public speaker, and actor. What is your secret to success in these varied areas?
When it comes to worldly success, I think the three most important words in the English language are probably, ’Don’t dabble - focus!’ I have done a variety of things in my career (not all successfully by any means) but whatever I am doing at the time I try to take it seriously, I try to give it my all. As it says in the Book of Proverbs: ’A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest - and poverty will come on you like a vagabond and want like an armed man.’ As far as a personal philosophy is concerned, when I came across them I was struck by these words by Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941), a near-contemporary of Oscar Wilde’s, best remembered as the founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides movement. On 4 July 1911, in a letter to a friend, he wrote: ’I know my weak points and am only thankful that I have managed to get along in spite of them! I think that’s the policy for this world: Be glad of what you have got, and not miserable about what you would like to have had, and not over-anxious about what the future will bring.’
8. Excluding the authors brought to life in this book, who are your favorite writers?
My favorite books are probably Vanity Fair by W M Thackeray and The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett. My favorite writers are certainly the giants of the nineteenth century: Edgar Alan Poe, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Stendhal, Anthony Trollope. In the world of mystery, I’m a traditionalist: give me a roaring log fire and a good Agatha Christie and I am a happy man. (I love the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy L Sayers, too.)
9. You’ve mentioned the events and places which the series has in store for Oscar Wilde. Can you share with us an overview of the trials and tribulations that remain ahead for our narrator, Robert Sherard?
Oscar Wilde was a phenomenon. Robert Sherard was not, but his life certainly had its ups and downs nonetheless. He was born in London on 3 December 1861, the fourth child of the Reverend Bennet Sherard Calcraft Kennedy. His father was the illegitimate son of the sixth and last Earl of Harborough and his mother, Jane Stanley Wordsworth, was the grand-daughter of the poet laureate, William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Robert was educated at Queen Elizabeth College, Guernsey, at New College, Oxford, and at the University of Bonn, but he left both Oxford and Bonn without securing a degree. In 1880, having quarrelled with his father and lost his expected inheritance, he abandoned his ’Kennedy’ surname and settled in Paris where he set about earning his living as an author and journalist. He cultivated the acquaintance of a number of the leading literary figures of the day, including Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Alphone Daudet and, of course, Oscar Wilde. He published thirty-three books during his lifetime, including a collection of poetry, Whispers (1884), novels, biographies, social studies and five books inspired by his friendship with Wilde. He lived much of his life in France, where he was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. He died in England, in Ealing, on 30 January 1943. He was married three times and the vicissitudes of his complicated love-life will certainly be featuring in future mysteries. So will his fondness for duelling . . .
10. How many books will the Oscar Wilde murder mystery series have? Can you share any clues with us about the next book in the series?
So far I have outlined plots for nine Oscar Wilde murder mysteries! Most of the stories will take place before his downfall in 1895; one will certainly take place during his imprisonment; at least two will cover the years of his exile, when he lived in France under the name of Sebastian Melmoth and supplemented his tiny income with work as a private detective. Oscar’s life was so extraordinary, he knew such a variety of people, he traveled so extensively, that the possibilities really are limitless. For example, I recently discovered that when he was a young man visiting Rome he succeeded in securing an audience with Pope Pius IX - so in due course I think you can look forward to Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders!