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Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: John Murray (29 April 2010)
'Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man's Smile' is the third book in Gyles Brandreth series of mysteries, which pits the great Oscar Wilde as detective, assisted by a cast of famous celebrities of the Victorian era.
It's worth noting that the books in this series do not follow on from each other and so are perfectly readable as standalone mysteries. For example, this book, although being third in the series, is actually set before the second book of the series.
After a successful lecture tour of America, playwright and poet Oscar Wilde has been invited to Paris to help translate 'Hamlet' for the French audience.
It's 1883 and the famous La Grange family are determined to put on the 'perfect Hamlet' and feel that Oscar is the perfect man to help them in their mission. After initially being delighted to accept the assignment, Oscar soon finds life at the famous La Grange theatre company is not quite what he expected as a string of tragic deaths rock the production. But the show must go on - and it seems like the La Grange family are determined to stage the perfect production, whatever the cost.
As things turn serious, Oscar begins to fear for his own safety so enlists the help of his new friend, Robert Sherard to solve the crime putting his life and his reputation on the line to do so.
The story is sandwiched between an epilogue and a prologue.
In the prologue, Oscar and Robert are in 1890 London, visiting Madame Tussauds with their friend Arthur Conan Doyle. Oscar informs Conan Doyle that he has a Christmas present for him - it is a manuscript documenting Oscar and Robert's time in Paris at the La Grange theatre company, written by Robert. The hook is that the manuscript is not quite finished and Oscar tells Conan Doyle that he hopes he can assist him in the 'final' chapter. This immediately intrigued me and made me desperate to reach the last chapter! Brandreth certainly knows how to hook his audience and he plays the game ingeniously here. The significance of the books title is only revealed in the very last sentence of the epilogue....
The epilogue is of course, the final chapter which Oscar speaks off. I was utterly gripped by it and could never have guessed the twists and turns it delivered. I read some reviews which complained that the mysteries are impossibly difficult to solve which ruins the readers enjoyment of trying to guess 'who dunnit' themselves. For me personally, this was a bonus because I hate predictable endings and I hate being correct about the identity of the killer. I'd much rather be surprised and this book certainly delivers on that score.
I particularly enjoyed reading the account of the first meeting between Robert Sherard and Oscar Wilde. In real life, these two were life long friends and Sherard's loyalty and adulation of Oscar is captured perfectly here. The scene was made even more poignant for me given the fact that Brandreth's father apparently knew Robert Sherard. Therefore, the description of their meeting was probably heavily based in fact. The pair's often absinthe fuelled outings have them experience every aspect of Parisan lifestyle as they work together to solve the crime and Sherrard's hero like worship of his famous friend is both touching and irritating at times.
I know much about Oscar's life having studied him at school. To know the real life stories behind these friendships always adds an extra element of fascination for me. That is the advantage of using a real person as your protagonist.
Printed on the opening page, and repeated often throughout the novel, is one of Oscar Wilde's most famous quotes - 'I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world....' and in this book, Oscar does just that as he glides effortlessly between the very highs and lows of Parisian society and social elite. From spending time with the 'divine' and world famous actress Sarah Bernhardt, to visiting the macabre 'House of the dead' and an asylum for the insane. Oscar (and Robert, through virtue of knowing Oscar) truly experiences just about every aspect of life in the French capital and the reader gets to explore this fascinating city with them.
It's the attention to detail that I love about this series. For example, Brandreth even provides us a map of Oscar's Paris in 1893, this helps bring to life the wonderfully crafted setting of 19th Century France.
Many of Wilde's most famous quotes and witticisms are blended effortlessly into the plot. I loved the use of 'I have nothing to declare except my genius' (I loved it so much that I chose it as the title of this review!) which got Oscar into trouble at customs, and his long letter to Robert detailing his hatred of newspapers. I find it utterly believable as the voice of Oscar Wilde and have no trouble imagining him in any of the scenarios that Brandreth depicts.
The bad stuff
This book takes a lot more effort to really 'get in to' than the previous book. After a brilliant first chapter which sets up an intriguing premise for the rest of the book, we are then transported back in time to Oscar Wilde's tour of America. This to me, wasn't entirely necessary, since the main story is set in Paris and that is where the action begins. It's very slow in parts and I felt like I was reading an Oscar Wilde autobiography for the first 100 or so pages as I waited for the fictional murders to begin. For example, In one chapter we have Wilde go back to England to visit a would be assassin of the Queen who is being held in an Reading Gaol (jail). I have no idea if Oscar actually visited this man or not in real life but it seemed like a random tangent that had nothing to do with the main 'La Grange' storyline and didn't really need to be included in the novel. In fact, considering that this book is pushing close to 400 pages, I feel that chunks of it could have been taken out and the book would have benefited from being scaled down.
I'd say you'd have to be much more of a Wilde fan to enjoy this book than the previous ones, because you're getting a lot more of his life story here.
I also found myself missing the presence of Robert Sherard who narrates the previous books in this series. Sherard also narrates this book too but he doesn't appear until the Paris chapters begin and I was surprised that I missed his presence so much. I felt him to be a weak character and narrator in the previous book. But I now realise that Sherard plays Watson to Wilde's Holmes, and without him, the book doesn't quite flow as effectively.
Finally, this book suffers a problem that is common to it's predecessor. If you are going to create a murder mystery using a cast of real and fictional characters, then it is obvious who will be murdered and who will survive. For example, you know that Oscar and Robert are never truly in danger since they have already died in real life and neither were murdered. The same rules can be applied to Conan Doyle and the rest of Oscars non-fictional friends. Unfortunately, this means you can easily foretell every death before it actually does happen.
Don't be put off by the slow pace of this book because once it gets going it's completely gripping and the finale is one of the most exciting and unexpected that I've ever read.
Oscar Wilde is the perfect detective and utterly believable in the roll that Brandreth has created for him.
Witty and well researched as always, this is a series which just seems to improve with every book.