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29 June 2008

FOCAL POINT : Gyles Brandreth, “Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death”

“OSCAR WILDE and the Ring of Death” (John Murray Publishers, 2008) is the second book in Gyles Brandreth's series of murder mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde as detective. It is one of the most entertaining books I have read this year, fueled by Mr Brandreth's impressive understanding of the Wilde witticism and the affairs of the turn of the century. It is almost like Mr Brandreth having romped through London at that time with Oscar Wilde himself, and then living to tell the tale.

In the book, Mr Wilde is the toast of London's high society. His “Lady Windermere's Fan” is a critical and box-office success, and his popularity is unmatched amongst the cognoscenti. One evening, at an exclusive “Sunday Supper Club” dinner with such friends as Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, and Robert Sherard (who also narrates the story), Wilde introduces a parlor game involving a list of people that his guests would secretly like to kill. From the next day onward, each person on the “hit list” dies mysteriously, in the very order with which his or her name showed up during the dinner. Wilde, Conan Doyle, and Sherard begin to investigate independently, especially after failing to enlist the help of Scotland Yard . . . and especially since Wilde's name itself appears on the “hit list!” Their ensuing adventures are as jolly as they are thrilling.

Mr Brandreth's characters stay with you throughout the reading of the book. I like the way that he imbues beauty in every character, even those who Oscar Wilde considers “ugly” (“He is grotesque. Speak to him, Robert. I cannot”) and who Robert Sherard abhors (“He was too charming, too intelligent, too well- and widely-read”). The sensual characters coexist with the virtuous, and they all stand out.

But it is in his profound knowledge of Oscar Wilde that Mr Brandreth shines. I am not sure of any other novelist who can match his ability to drop this much Wildesque one-liners (“It is sweet to think that one day I will serve to grow tulips”) and add-on information (“It's called parsley.” “Correctly known as ‘petroselinum’”). Mix that with terrific wit and story-telling shrewdness, and you have a fun writer and a sensational book.

I do not think that “Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Fire” is necessarily part of a series that you read in order. I picked up the book from Kolkata's Starmark Bookstore with no prior knowledge of Mr Brandreth and his murder series, and I did not notice the need to read the prequel. However, I shall move on to the other books. Oscar Wilde and Gyles Brandreth are certainly worth the time.

See more about “Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death”.


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