Of course, this is not a hard-boiled detective story. It’s not even a soft-boiled detective story. I’ve no idea why the quality of a detective story is rated using a scale of how cooked an egg is, but if we’re to go along with the analogy, then this is an entirely unboiled detective story. There’s very little actual forensic investigation, and anything resembling Holmes’ scientific tests are out of the question. That’s not really the point. It is the literary flair, Wilde’s histrionics and throwaway lines that carry the story. Wilde famously claimed that life imitates art, and the application of his knowledge of literature is his modus operandi in unraveling the enigma–and it’s a delightful one because Wilde reads so much as Wilde. Brandreth’s clearly had a lot of practice with writing him, or maybe he’s just naturally very, very good at it.
The one slight setback, however, is that so much more could have been made of Doyle’s presence. On the one hand, he’s supposed to be the figure of logic and reason, a juxtaposition to Wilde’s romantic ruminations. And yet, in life, Doyle was hardly the same figure of reason his detective was; in fact, he was known for being a spiritual man, much more likely – I think – to believe stories of spirits and ghosts than Brandreth’s narration claims. Then again, Doyle did solve mysteries in real life, mysteries based on hard, solid evidence – but then one wonders why he is so far behind Wilde in figuring out who the culprit is. He may be an interesting foil for Wilde as a character, but in the context of a mystery story, his role seems to be relegated unfortunately to that of nothing but chronicler – a strange decision, given that even Doctor Watson had a lot more to do than simply narrate.
Overall, though, it’s not an overstatement to claim that Gyles Brandreth is a very talented man. He has the knack for setting the stage for over a century ago, peopling it with real figures, and breathing life into them as a magician might. He’s also very good at that pesky, annoying accuracy thing that plagues so many writers of historical fiction. In fact, if Wilde weren’t so opposed to the idea, I’d even claim that Brandreth’s book is a rather laudable imitation of life; in respect to the great Oscar Wilde, I will refrain and suggest that Oscar Wilde’s life imitates art, and we must thank Gyles Brandreth for setting it down on the page for us.