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Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol
by Gyles Brandreth
Book Six in the Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries series.
For two years, Oscar Wilde was imprisoned at Reading Gaol; once he was released, he fled to France. As he sits nursing a drink at the Café Suisse, a stranger approaches him with an offer: cash for the story of Wilde’s time behind bars. That evening, and through the next day, Wilde regales his companion with his suffering: the poor food, the solitary confinement, the lack of reading and writing materials, the hard manual labor…and the mysterious murders that plagued the prison.
As I understand it, the premise of this series is that Oscar Wilde’s friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (sound familiar?) introduced him to the use of rational, logical thinking for solving crime. Wilde’s natural intelligence and wit has made him a natural detective, and he has solved several murders already.
Although this is not the first book in the Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries series, it’s the first one that I’ve read. I had heard that it wasn’t necessary to read the rest of the series in order to understand the events of this novel, and for the most part I found this to be true. However, I certainly would have benefited from reading a biography of Wilde first. Virtually all I know of Oscar Wilde comes from the film Wilde, but I fell asleep halfway through the movie so really, it hardly counts. Very little is said of the years leading up to Wilde’s imprisonment. I would have liked to know more about the trial, for example – although the charges are clear, there’s little discussion about how Wilde was caught or what testimony was found against him. These details weren’t necessary to the story, but I still wondered.
Most of the book focuses instead on Wilde as he suffers in prison – and suffer he does! After his life of ease and luxury, Wilde cannot handle the poor food, perpetual chill, solitary days, and hard labor assigned him. In time, Wilde comes to view his suffering as rather necessary for his soul; having once lived solely for pleasure, he must balance his life with suffering and sorrow. This humbled Wilde was new to me, but I enjoyed the evolution of his character under hardship.
The mystery really seems incidental in this story. The murders are spread out over a relatively long period of time, and none of the authorities seems interested in investigating them. Wilde does spend a lot of his endless time mulling over the deaths, but hey, what else is he going to think about during his long hours of solitude? By the time he finally gets around to revealing what happened to the stranger in the French café, I’d honestly forgotten about the murders and was unconcerned with their resolution.
No, this is a story about Wilde, not solving murders. Gyles Brandreth, the author, claims that he tried to stick as close to the facts of Wilde’s life in prison as was possible, and the story certainly seems authentic enough. I enjoyed learning more about this difficult period in Wilde’s life, and I thought it was a great exploration of how life in Reading Gaol shaped Wilde’s final years. As a work of historical fiction, it was great. But as a mystery? Eh. Not so much. It just depends on what you’re looking for in a story.
As for me, I greatly enjoyed Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol and I’ll probably seek out some of the other books in the series.
3.5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Fashionista Piranha on hiatus until May 24th...
2011: In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant
2010: Giveaway #13: Asian Pacific American Lot
2009: Digital Piracy Affects Books, Too