The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries


Murders at Reading Gaol
BUY UK


Murders at Reading Gaol
BUY USA

Book 6:

Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol (title in UK & USA)

Book Description | Excerpt | Reading Group Guide | Q & A with Gyles

A CONVERSATION WITH GYLES BRANDRETH

  1. This is the sixth book in your Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries series. Do you feel there is there still more for you to write about him?  There is plenty more to write about.  Oscar Wilde’s life was so extraordinary.  There were remarkable highs and incredible lows – the stuff of comedy and tragedy.  He knew so many people – writers, artists, actors, princes, poets, prostitutes, politicians . . . he met a pope and Mark Twain (though not on the same day): he knew all types and conditions of men and women – and he travelled widely, in Europe, in America, in North Africa.   The possibilities feel limitless.  I have now written six mysteries.  In my head, I have plot outlines for at least six more.  For example, it turns out that Oscar Wilde was a friend of four men who were among those most often accused of being Jack the Ripper – so it could be that, thanks to Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle, my next mystery reveals, at long last, the complete (and unexpected) truth about the most notorious and brutal murderer of the nineteenth century . . .  

  2. Your Wilde series has been extensively and positively reviewed. How does that affect you when working on the next title?  The mysteries have been very generously received and that’s both wonderful and a challenge.  It means that I feel I have to keep raising my game.  I want the stories to work as satisfying murder mysteries – in the tradition of the best of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers – and at the same time I want my portrait of Wilde and his circle to be as accurate and true as possible.  When you meet Oscar Wilde or Arthur Conan Doyle in my stories, I want you to feel you are meeting the real man.  With Wilde there is an extra challenge, too: he was reckoned the greatest talker of his time!  Yes, I can borrow some of the brilliant things we know he said, but I have to invent quite a few of my own as well.

  3. This series has been published in 23 countries. Have your fan receptions been different in each country?   In some countries, the real Oscar Wilde – poet, playwright, prisoner – is almost unknown.  There they read the books simply because they are historical murder mysteries.  They assume that Oscar Wilde is entirely my invention!  In Russia, they are much more aware of Arthur Conan Doyle than they are of Oscar Wilde, so they are more interested in him than in Oscar – and on the cover of one of the Russian editions I see that they have dressed Oscar Wilde in a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker and given him a Sherlock Holmes pipe to smoke.

  4. You have exhaustively studied the life and personality of Oscar Wilde, a man who was born almost a century before you. Do you view the distance of time as a benefit or challenge to your understanding of the man?  My father was born in 1910, only a decade after Oscar Wilde’s death.  Arthur Conan Doyle was still very much alive then.  Bedales, the English boarding school I was sent to as a boy in the 1960s, was founded by a man – John Badley - who knew Oscar and Constance Wilde: their older son, Cyril, was a pupil at the school.  Mr Badley was still alive when I was at Bedales.  I took tea with him on Wednesday afternoons during term-time.  We played Scrabble and talked about Oscar Wilde.  Yes, I knew a man who knew Oscar Wilde.  And now, in 2013, I find that I am a friend of Oscar Wilde’s only grandson, Merlin Holland.  The events I am describing took place more than a century years ago and yet, curiously, I feel very close to them.  And it’s not just the people I feel close to: I feel I know the places, too.  With all the books in the series I try to visit the actual locations – and, of course, many of the buildings of the 1880s and 1890s are still with us and some are comparatively unchanged.  For example, when I was writing Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders I had a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour of the Vatican and, while researching this book, I was privileged to spend time at Reading Gaol.  I have sat in the actual cell where Wilde was incarcerated.  I have walked along the prison corridors.  I have stood in the execution room.

  5. What is the most interesting or striking feedback you have received about your Oscar Wilde series?  Oscar Wilde’s only grandson, Merlin Holland, is a considerable authority on his grandparents’ lives and the editor of the Collected Letters of Oscar Wilde.  He has read all the books in my series of mysteries and, as well as being very generous about them, has put me right on details of fact when I have gone wrong.  Having his feedback has been invaluable.  I have also had generous and helpful feedback from people who knew Wilde’s friend, Lord Alfred Douglas, and from members of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London.  When writing these books I want to ‘get it right’.  It’s a murder mystery: it’s historical fiction, but many of the characters were real people (more than you would think) and I want the reality to be real.  When this book was first published in London, we held a party at the Cadogan Hotel.  The hotel features in Oscar Wilde and a Game Called Murder and is the hotel where Wilde was arrested and taken for trial in 1895.  At the party the guests included Wilde’s grandson and great-grandson, several actors who had played Wilde on stage or screen, the priest from the church where the Wildes were married and representatives from Reading Gaol, including the present Governor and a prison officer who had served in the prison for more than thirty years.  He said to me, ‘The Reading Gaol in your book – it’s the real thing.’  That pleased me very much.

  6. The Ballad of Reading Gaol tackles a darker side of Wilde than previous titles in the series. A sense of isolation pervades the harsh environment of the jail, but here Wilde also endures absence of Arthur Conan Doyle, with whom he has solved mysteries in previous titles. How did these more somber, introspective elements affect the writing process for you?   Oscar Wilde’s life was a roller-coaster ride and my series of mysteries must reflect that.  To put myself into the right frame of mind for this book, I visited the prison and I re-read all the letters we have that date from the time of Wilde’s incarceration, including the long confessional letter that he wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas, now known as ‘De Profundis’.  At the British Library I was able to read – and touch – the original manuscript of the letter.  Seeing Wilde’s handwriting on the prison notepaper was a moving experience.  I also visited Wilde’s grave in Paris while writing the book and – quite as moving – visited the grave of his wife, Constance, in Genoa. 

  7. Even more than 100 years after his death, Wilde’s works are widely studied and appreciated. Why do they have this timeless relevance? What makes Wilde such an enduringly fascinating person?  Wilde’s works stand on their own merit.  The Importance of Being Earnest is, arguably, the best comedy written in the English language.  It is a play that will stand the test of time.  Recently I appeared on stage in a musical version of the play (as Lady Bracknell) and the more familiar I became with the play the more I admired it.  As I get to know Wilde the man better, I don’t admire him more, but I do find him ever more fascinating.  During his life he went out of his way to make himself a mythic personality – and, incredibly, the myth has endured.  The tragedy that followed the triumphs helped, no doubt.  And, like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Elvis Presley, he died before his time.  He is a wonderful character to write about because he is both touched by genius and flawed.  He is somebody you want to meet and, when I am writing these books, I do feel that I am meeting him.

  8. You certainly have extensive experience studying and writing about Oscar Wilde. If you could choose another person as the subject of a historical fiction novel, who would it be and why?   I am happy enough living in the twenty-first century, but if I had to live in another epoch I would choose the nineteenth century, so that I could meet the giants of that era who created characters and worlds that are still alive today – characters like Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.  And once I had exhausted the possibilities of the Victorian age, I would move back to the Elizabethan age.  Queen Elizabeth I was a remarkable woman and writing about her would be a fascinating challenge.  Perhaps I could find a way to team her up with the greatest writer of them all, William Shakespeare?  It is strange: Shakespeare knew so much about us and yet we know so little about him.  I would like to discover more.

  9. Will your next writing project focus on Oscar Wilde or will you go in a new direction?   I have recently completed a play (with music by Susannah Pearse) about Lewis Carroll and a young actress called Isa Bowman who was one of the first to play the part of Alice in Wonderland on stage.  I am currently writing a one-man show called Looking for Happiness and editing the new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations.  And then it’s back to Oscar and Arthur.  I think it has to be.  One of my forebears was a Victorian journalist called George R Sims (famous in his day, almost forgotten now): he claimed to be the first man to identify Jack the Ripper.  I have uncovered a stash of his unpublished papers.  I now know things I feel the world should know.

  10. Wilde was known for his exceptional wit. Can you share one of your favorites of his quotes?   Now did Oscar Wilde say this?  Or did I invent it for him to say?  I really do not recall, but I like the line because it reminds me why so many of us love a traditional murder mystery.  ‘There is nothing quite like an unexpected death for lifting the spirits.’