Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man’s Smile

By Gyles Brandreth

Rating: 4 stars

I have fond memories of Gyles Brandreth and his jumpers from my childhood on TV-am and still enjoy his media appearances, even if he is a Tory. I’ve never until now encountered any of his written work but this was a pleasant introduction to it. This is part of a series starring Oscar Wilde in a detective role, solving murder mysteries, with a dramatis personae of historical characters, including Robert Sherard and Arthur Conan Doyle. The real characters are woven skilfully into the narrative and several times I had to google a character or location to see if it was real or not.

Having a good backdrop would be pointless if the story itself wasn’t up to scratch, but thankfully it is. Brandreth weaves together a tale that takes Wilde from a lecture tour of the US to a collaboration with a celebrated Parisian theatre company for a production of Hamlet. The story is fairly slow-burning with a plot that only comes together right at the end, with a twist that turns what appears to be a very pedestrian ending into something much more interesting.

The plot may be slow-burning, but the character are all very vivid, especially Wilde himself, who jumps out from the page. Brandreth also provides some context for some of Wilde’s more famous quotes which raise a smile, although whether the fiction matches the fact is harder to judge. Sherard is more muted, the Watson to Wilde’s Holmes but even he gets some excitement in the form of a duel later in the book.

I wasn’t sure if I’d like this book, bringing together, as it does, historical figures in a fictional setting, but it worked remarkably well for me, so I’ll certainly look out for others in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781444724141
Publisher: John Murray
Year of publication: 2009

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