Oscar Wilde and Dead Man’s Smile
(title in UK & USA)
| Reading Group
Guide | Q
& A with Gyles
A Conversation with Gyles Brandreth, Author:
1. Authors often remark that they put a little
bit of themselves into their characters. How strongly do you identify
with each of your main characters? How are you different?
As a writer, I’d like to be like Oscar Wilde.
As a human being, I’d like to be like Conan Doyle. In reality,
I am Robert Sherard. I admire Wilde’s way with words, and
his extraordinary personal style and I envy his philosophy, but
he had genius. Conan Doyle had genius too. Sherlock Holmes is arguably
the most celebrated fictional character ever created. But Conan
Doyle was also a wonderful human being: courteous, courageous, compassionate.
He was a great man. Robert Sherard (a real person, genuinely Wilde’s
first biographer) is what I am, however. A hero-worshipper, an observer,
a journalist and biographer who spends much of his life with great
men, but is aware of his own limitations – and vulnerability.
2. You have a deep knowledge of Oscar Wilde’s
character and personality. If you were to meet him in person, what
would you want to ask him first?
“Why, in 1895, did you bring your own house
down upon yourself by instigating the legal action that led to your
downfall? Why, between trials that spring, when you could have escaped
in safety to France, did you not do so? What is the moment in your
life you most regret? And the moment in your life in which you felt
yourself most ‘realised’?” Actually, what I’d
probably ask him first is: “Have you read my books? What do
you think? Have I got it right?”
3. Why did you set the book in the place and
time that you did? Do you have a special link to the American West
or the theater in Paris?
Oscar’s first visit to America was an important
experience for him – and I have a feeling for the United States
in that era because my father’s great-grandfather, Dr Benjamin
Brandreth was an American and ‘a big man’ in his way
in the America of that era. He was a New York state senator, a millionaire
medicine salesman and a friend of P T Barnum, among others. Paris
was central to Oscar’s life: that is where he met Robert Sherard;
that is where he died. French culture in general, and the French
theatre in particular, were always important to Oscar. They have
been to me. I went to a French school. I have been visiting the
theater in France since I was a boy. I have a tiny apartment in
one of the Paris streets featured in this novel. I know the streets
of Paris – these streets – well. I love them.
4. Your novel is tremendously engaging and
can easily be read in one sitting. Oscar and Robert go through a
whirlwind through the course of the book. Did you work on the book
for a long time or finish it very quickly?
This is the third in a series of mysteries featuring
Oscar Wilde and his circle. I have nine more planned already! In
a way, what I am trying to do is write a sort of ‘serial biography’
of Wilde, my flawed hero, and, at the same time, a series of traditional
mysteries. Essentially, while the rest of the world is living in
the twenty-first century, I am living at the end of the nineteenth.
I am completely absorbed in this period and in the lives of all
the characters: I know their biographies, I walk the streets they
walked. Writing each novel takes roughly a year: three months planning
the plot and doing extra research; nine months writing. I do other
things (I am a television reporter and presenter, and I do radio
in the UK) but on writing days I am very disciplined. I start at
8.00 am and I continue until 7.00 pm and I aim to achieve one thousand
words. (They always need revising! The lighter they feel, the heavier
has been the work-load to get them that way.)
5. What is your favorite book by Oscar Wilde?
What is your favorite quote?
My favorite book? The Complete Works. Seriously.
It is the range of Wilde that I find fascinating. Of course, I love
the fairy tales and The Importance of Being Earnest is
a truly wonderful play, but dip into the Complete Works
at any page and you will find something to warm the heart and challenge
the intellect. What is intriguing about Oscar Wilde is the way that
he is thinking all the time. My favorite quote? Given that my hero
is a detective and these are mysteries, it has to be: ‘There
is nothing quite like an unexpected death for lifting the spirits.’
(Except now I can’t quite remember if he said it first –
or I did.)
6. How was writing this novel a different
experience from writing your first Oscar Wilde mysteries? What was
harder about the process? What was easier?
You can read my Oscar Wilde Mysteries in any order.
I wrote Oscar Wilde and a Death
of No Importance first and, in it, I reckon I worked harder
on establishing Oscar as a personality (and as a credible sleuth)
than I did on the mystery itself. Now I think my priority is to
create a good story, a strong plot, a real mystery that is a satisfying
puzzle. That done, I then let Wilde and his friends loose and we
see what happens! It has not got easier or more difficult and it’s
still fun. As well as writing about these real men and women, I
am also hoping to write a mystery that is a tribute to the tradition
of the great Victorian and Edwardian pioneers of detective fiction.
7. What was your inspiration for this story?
Oscar’s visit to Leadville, Colorado. It really
happened. That’s where I began. I simply took it from there.
I also wanted to show readers how Oscar and Robert Sherard first
met, so I had to go to Paris when I did – because that’s
when they were there. And I have the book begin and end as it does
because I needed Conan Doyle to feature. Incidentally, all that
I tell you about Conan Doyle and Mr Tussaud is true.
8. As you relate in your author’s note,
much of the book is centered on actual history. What is your research
process like? How does your research directly or indirectly affect
I try to make my research process meticulous. I want
you to read this book confident that what you are learning about
Wilde and his circle – and Wilde’s American tour, and
the Paris theater of the 1880s, and life in Reading Gaol, etc –
is accurate. The research is important to me because I enjoy it
and I learn from it. Yes, it inspires: it triggers ideas for the
plot. For example, I had the duel taking place in the Bois de Boulogne
in my plot outline, but then I visited the Buttes Chaumont in Paris
just before starting to write the novel and realized, suddenly,
‘Yes, this must be where the duel took place.’ My description
of the place is based on personal observation. The same is true
of the house of the Princesse de Lamballe where the Doctors Blanche
had their clinic. As the guest of the current resident (the Turkish
ambassador to France) I visited it. (That reminds me. I must send
His Excellency a copy of the book. It is available in French. Indeed,
the series is appearing in a variety of languages and countries.
For news of these, check out the International
9. To what other writers would you compare
your writing style? Who do you enjoy reading? What books influenced
you to become a writer?
I don’t compare my writing style to anybody’s.
I am the only guilty party here! Of course, I was brought up on
the mysteries of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. I love a
traditional English mystery. I am sure that shows. Who do I enjoy
reading? The Victorians mostly and all the obvious ones: Austen,
Gaskell, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope. My favourite novel is either
Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or The Old Wives’
Tale by Arnold Bennett. Influences? Well, Sherlock Holmes has
been my fictional hero since I was quite a small boy and The
Trials of Oscar Wilde was the first non-fiction book I ever
read! So the true answer to the question is Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie
Wills Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle.
10. Do you have plans for your next Oscar
Yes, I already have detailed plans for nine more –
and ideas for several beyond that! The joy of Wilde is that he knew
everybody and went everywhere and had a roller-coaster of a life.
The possibilities are infinite. Eventually, I will be writing mysteries
based on his time in prison and after – when he eked out a
living in France doing detective work under the name of Sebastian
Melmoth. I have not quite decided which story I am going to begin
writing up next. It may be a Christmas tale – I have a fondness
for snow and the color of blood on snow. Or it may be Oscar
Wilde and the Vatican Murders. You know that Oscar Wilde had
a private audience with Pope Pius IX. You didn’t know? Well,
he did. He really did. And they talked of murder . . .