Wilde imagination: Oscar as Holmes

Imagine Oscar Wilde, the famed playwright and poet, in the mold of a Sherlock Holmes or a Hercules Poirot. That’s precisely what author Gyles Brandreth does – make a convincing detective out of Wilde even as he remains faithful in his portrayal of him as an aesthete and a bohemian with his flamboyant style and acerbic wit.

Incidentally, “The Dead Man’s Smile” is the third installment in the Oscar Wilde mystery series by Brandreth. Though the genre is historical fiction, the story is a classic murder mystery originating in America where Wilde has a hugely successful tour in the late 19th century. The plot begins slowly, but once the scene shifts to Paris, the pace quickens. The story is told a decade after the event in the form of a manuscript given to author Dr Arthur Conan Doyle by Wilde as a Christmas gift. It details a mystery that occurred in Paris in 1881 but the resolution happens outside the manuscript during a discussion between the two.

As Oscar is leaving America, he meets the famous Edmond La Grange, actor-manager of the Compagnie La Grange, a French theatre dynasty. One thing leads to another and La Grange asks his help in translating Hamlet to French. Wilde agrees and they travel to Paris on the SS Bothnia.

The mystery kicks off when the pet dog of La Grange’s mother is found dead inside Wilde’s trunk. Later in Paris, in the midst of riotous parties and exuberant scenes of theatre production, several more bodies start turning up, each being dismissed as suicide.

One of the first deaths is that of a black valet from America who was persuaded by Wilde to join the service of La Grange. Though his death seems a suicide, Wilde is unconvinced and filled with guilt for having dragged him from America to his lonely death in Paris. As he starts off investigating many mysterious incidents and deaths, nothing about the La Grange family seems as it is. There are even a couple of attempts on his life. The doom and gloom is lightened by Wilde’s wit, which he freely admits to copying from others. “Plagiarism is the privilege of the appreciative man,” says Wilde, adding, “in a poet, plagiarism is excusable and lying quite essential” . Pure Wilde!

Brandreth claims that almost all of the book is true. While he himself visited all the places he talks about, even Wilde was said to in the very places Brandreth places him on those exact dates. The book is peopled with real persons: Wilde’s biographer and friend Robert Sherard, Arthur Conan Doyle and Sarah Bernhardt , a famous French actress.

Yet, despite Brandreth’s claims that he is true to the details of Wilde’s life, he has glossed over the more sensational aspects of his life such as his homosexuality which later led to his imprisonment .

Despite these minor deviations, it’s a racy read. There is no hint of the shadows that will eventually take over Wilde’s life, with him dying as a destitute in Paris at 46.

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