Review: Oscar Wilde & the Candlelight Murders by Gyles Brandreth

This work is set in London, 1889. Oscar Wilde, celebrated poet, wit, playwright and raconteur is the literary sensation of his age. All Europe lies at his feet. Yet when he chances across the naked corpse of sixteen-year-old Billy Wood, posed by candlelight in a dark stifling attic room, he cannot ignore the brutal murder. With the help of fellow author Arthur Conan Doyle he sets out to solve the crime – but it is Wilde’s unparalleled access to all degrees of late Victorian life, from society drawing rooms and the bohemian demi-monde to the underclass, that will prove the decisive factor in their investigation of what turns out to be a series of brutal killings.

Review by Erastes

Knowing of Gyles Brandreth from the television and radio, I rather thought this book might be a little “sophisticated” for me. He’s a vastly intelligent man and, like Stephen Fry, he often loses me with his mind but I needn’t have worried, because The Candlelight Murders is an enjoyable – almost frothy – murder mystery of the old school and thoroughly enjoyable.

It’s obvious from the word go that Brandreth is a big fan of Oscar Wilde and he sets the scene well. The books are narrated from the Point of View of Robert Sherrad, a real life friend of Wilde’s, and right at the beginning Robert makes it clear that although he loved Oscar, he was not his lover. The narration style is worthy of Watson, bumbling a good 20 steps behind the genius of Wilde as he burns his way across the page, leaving epithets and witticisms in his wake – believably so, as Brandreth explains that he would trial his “stock phrases” on his friends and relations before using them in his published works.

Oscar is totally believable, you can almost visualise him, almost believe that Brandreth had spent time with the great man, because he’s portrayed here in all of his greatness and his ambivalence. His love for his family and his wife is clear and yet the darker side of his life is never glossed over, not completely. It is clear that Sherrad knows of his predilections and they threaten to break through at any time.

I enjoyed this particularly because I grew up with Sayers and with Christie, I love romping through a book, catching some of the same clues as the detective and feeling smug, but I also love being led down a blind alley and being throughly duped by a clever writer. This doesn’t achieve that totally, not – for example – in the same magnificence as “Ten Little Niggers” did, or “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”, because I actually realised what was going on a couple of chapters towards the end. But it did a damned good job and once started it was impossible to put down.

The period detail is spectacularly well done, the demimonde feel of the fin-de-siecle cities, the descriptions of Oscar’s house, the dinner parties and most intriguingly the group of men who love boys is perfectly expressed. The cast of characters, ranging from the aesthetes to the grotesque as wonderfully drawn and suit the era and the darker undercurrents exactly.

Anyone who loves a good murder mystery will love this, and the homoerotic sublayers add even more flavour.

Buy: Buy Amazon UK Buy Amazon USA

10 Responses

  1. Oh, that’s good to know. I’ve had this one on my ‘to be bought’ list for a while, and I may even get round to getting it today then 🙂

  2. Don’t make the mistake that someone on Amazon did and buy “Oscar Wilde and the Death of no Importance” thinking it is the next in the series, because it’s the same book renamed!

  3. Great review for a great book! I’m looking forward to the next in the series for sure.



  4. I grew up on Christie, Sayers and Marsh as well so this might be a good one to try. Thanks for recommending it!

  5. Dang it, stop recommending books! My TBB pile is toppling over!
    Confession time, I also read some of Sayers and Christie in my misspent youth!;~D

  6. […] I had been looking forward to this book ever since I had finished the first one, Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders. […]

  7. I wasn’t sure about this book because Brandreth has a reputation as a bit of an upper class twit despite his intellect (as does Boris Johnson) but the book pulled me in right from the start. I had some difficulty with the portrayal of the demimonde, finding it sordid and unhealthily focussed on wealthy older men leering at paid youths, until I reminded myself that the history books tell us that this was just the world in which Wilde moved.
    The detective story was sparkling and enthralling, and Wilde’s tendency to keep his sidekick in the dark until it suited him was fun, reminiscent of just about every other fictional detective I can think of.
    It’s written in a polished style, the extensive historical detail appears to be accurate and integral to the story. I strongly recommend it.

  8. So you’re either pedantic or pretentious enough to refer to And Then There Were None/Ten Little Indians by its unfortunate original title, or you really don’t see the problem with the title as it was. I’m not sure which one is worse.

    • Because that’s the original title of the book. I would have thought that was obvious.

      • Yes. It is obvious. My comment said as much.

        The title was changed because it’s terribly offensive. Most people know it today as And Then There Were None or the less offensive Ten Little Indians. To casually throw out “Ten Little Niggers” like that means that you are either pretentious enough to dogmatically stick to the original title out of some misguided respect for the text, or you prefer it which is a different kind of problem. I’ve read the book. I enjoyed the book. I know the history behind its title, and I recognize why it was changed. The mystery-loving community had moved on, I thought. This isn’t like the use of the word in Huckleberry Fin where it helps to convey a specific tone and place in history. It’s a nonsense title based on a racist and ignorant song that is best forgotten. It is a favor to Ms. Christie to get past the title and just enjoy the text.

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