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by Gyles Brandeth
Touchstone, May 2013
325 pages
ISBN: 1439153752

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Given that we have now arrived at the moment of the writer's downfall and his apotheosis as a gay martyr, it is not surprising that OSCAR WILDE AND THE MURDERS AT READING GAOL, the sixth novel in the series, should be the darkest and the most harrowing. Though one would like to think that the prison horrors it describes are a thing of the past, one knows that they are anything but in the majority of the countries of the world, including many that pride themselves on setting the standards for civilization. Gyles Brandreth has captured the time and the places well. Whether he has captured Wilde at this moment in his life equally so must be up to each individual reader based on the reader's own conception of the man.

For its cover the American publisher curiously chose an 1882 photograph. The main events in the novel, as recounted in Wilde's own voice, take place during his incarceration in three different prisons, 1895-1897. A framing story by his good friend Robert Sherard (who has narrated previous cases in the series) is set in Dieppe, France, towards the end of June 1897, soon after Wilde's release, and just three years and five months before his death. His masterly letter to Alfred Lord Douglas, "De Profundis," has been sent (but not, of course, published), but his fatal reunion with Douglas remains in the future. The writer is already working on “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1898); otherwise, his writing career is over, and the bon mots are, comparatively speaking, largely missing from the present work. This is the period in Wilde's life in which, psychologically, he truly seems to be a man on a pendulum.

If I am stressing setting and character over mystery, I am only following Brandreth's lead. Actually the first murder takes place quite early in the story, in November 1895 before Reading. It's just that we don't, at the time, realize what we have witnessed. As far as the reader knows, until near the end, the first murder, that of a prison warder, occurs over a third of the way into the story. There will be two others, the last the most unexpected and devious of the lot. Conan Doyle is missing from this novel, but the spirit of Holmes continues to inspire Wilde. If the final solution seems a bit far-fetched, it is no more so than those of the five cases that preceded it. The explanation, however, does involve one aspect of the series that has increasingly disturbed me. Brandreth has always justly depicted Wilde as bisexual and has stressed his devotion to his wife and his children. But his homosexual characters are nearly always vicious, villainous, and vile, with scant attention given to the social and legal forces that may have formed them thus.

Such a novel leaves me faintly puzzled. Who is its ideal reader? Who are its likely buyers? Whoever they are, I would urge them not to miss the appendices to the novel. The details about the story's factual background are fascinating; equally so is the author's description of his research in writing the work. Brandreth, a noted television performer in England, records wryly how, upon his visit to Reading to get a feel for the place, "the young prisoner I met on my visit to cell C.3.3. knew quite well who I was, even though he had not heard of Oscar Wilde." I would love to know what the youth would make of this novel.

§ A new edition of Drewey Wayne Gunn's book THE GAY MALE SLEUTH IN PRINT AND FILM was published by Scarecrow Press, November 2012.

Reviewed by Drewey Wayne Gunn, May 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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