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Interview: Gyles Brandreth about His Novel, Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders

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Once in a while I like to try reading something – as part of an accompanying interview – that is way beyond my usual area of interest. Such is the case here.

So I’ll walk you through my thought process as I received Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders. At the time I had not heard of the author. I looked at the title and thought, ok, I’m not really into vampires but I’ve always meant to learn a bit more about Oscar Wilde, considered by some one of the most eloquent and witty men ever.

As I googled the title I realized it was part of a series, Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries, and the author wasn’t just one of those guys rewriting fiction to add zombies or vampires but an interesting writer in his own right.

Gyles Brandreth is well known in Great Britian as a television personality, author of biographies of members the royal family and other projects. You can read more about him here.

Convinced – and I was correct on both counts – I was in for an interesting read and a fascinating conversation – I agreed to do the interview. The book is a fun read both for those who like mysteries and those interested in Oscar Wilde, Sherlock Holmes and the lot. The resulting interview follows.

First, I’d like to ask you to provide a mini-biography because I don’t think I can do you justice – you’re an author, a speaker, a TV show guest, a former MP, and am in the Guinness Book of Records for speaking non-stop for 12 ½ hours? What do all these things have in common?

First and foremost, I am a writer. That’s what I have spent my life doing. But I do a few other things too. I have been a print journalist. I am still a broadcast journalist: I am a reporter with BBC TV’s nightly One Show here in the UK. I am an actor: I am currently on tour with my one-man show. I have been an MP and government minister. And yes I talk a lot! I did once talk non- stop for 12 and a half hours, but it was to raise money for a worthwhile charity. At least, that’s my excuse. The value of doing the range of things I have done is that they feed into the stories I write – the theatre, politics, gossip, talking … these were all elements in the life of the hero of my murder mysteries: Oscar Wilde.

Why did you decide to write a series about Oscar Wilde?

He has fascinated me since I was a child. My parents lived in Chelsea, in south west London, immediately opposite the house where Oscar’s mother lived and around the corner from Oscar’s home in Tite Street. At school I met an old gentleman called John Badley (the founder of the school, Bedales) who lived to the age of 102. He was born in 1863. He was a contemporary and friend of Oscar Wilde. Oscar’s eldest son, Cyril, went to the school. So when I was just a teenager I knew a man who knew Oscar Wilde!

So, Oscar Wilde was my childhood hero. My FICTIONAL childhood hero was Sherlock Holmes. So imagine my surprise when a few years ago, reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s autobiography, I discovered that the creator of Sherlock Holmes had met Oscar Wilde – and admired him. The unlikely friendship between the flamboyant Wilde and the conventional Conan Doyle triggered the idea of creating a series of murder mysteries featuring Wilde as my detective and Conan Doyle as his sidekick. The first book that I wrote in the series opens on the day of Wilde and Conan Doyle’s real-life first meeting in the summer of 1889.

Is it important for readers to read your books in order?

Not at all. The books are all inspired by real events and real people, and they cover very different times in the turbulent and extraordinary life of Oscar Wilde. The first that I wrote (Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance) begins on the day when Wilde and Conan Doyle met, but you don’t need to read it first. The one I have just finished, for example, Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders, opens much earlier in Wilde’s life – when he was just 22 and a student at Oxford: he visited Rome and had a private audience with Pope Pius IX … Can you imagine? Oscar Wilde and the Pope! It really happened – and that’s where my story begins. Each story stands alone.  

Since you’ve written books on the Royal Family I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the recent Royal Wedding? What did you think of it and why did you think it, at least in America, didn’t capture our attention in the end as much as Charles-Diana?

A royal wedding gives you fairy-tale romance AND living history. I think that’s why it appeals. I enjoyed watching the latest royal wedding because the couple seemed so well suited – I think it might actually be a marriage that works!

What would Oscar Wilde make of the wedding?

Oscar Wilde was happily married – at least for a while. He loved his wife and his children. He and his wife, Constance, thought that maybe a marriage should be for a fixed term contract, lasting seven years, and then renewable for another 7 years if you fancied it … I think Oscar would have wished the royal couple well. He was witty, and contrary, and he turned lots of ideas on their heads, but he wasn’t cynical. And he had a soft spot for royalty. The Prince of Wales – Queen Victoria’s son, who later becomes King Edward VII – was a friend of Oscar’s and he and his circle are central figures in my latest book to be published in the US: Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders.

In what ways are you like Oscar Wilde and in what ways are you different?

I am not at all like, Oscar. He had genius – and he would have been a remarkable detective, I believe. He observed human nature, he was a good listener (as well as a supreme talker), he was intellectually brilliant and he moved easily in every walk of society. He could mix with princes and popes – and common prostitutes. That’s handy if you are a detective. I am not Wilde, alas. I am much more like the friend of Wilde who wrote the first three biographies of him: Robert Sherard. He is the narrator for several of the books. What’s wonderful about Wilde is that he knew so many extraordinary characters. I use them to people my books. It’s a wonderful world to visit: the 1880s and 1890s. Through writing these books I have become a time traveler.

Why the vampire angle in this new book? In interviews I read as research for this interview you spoke of trying to keep these stories as factual as possible but I’m guessing the vampire plot didn’t really happen, right? Figure better to check… just in case.

Oscar Wilde was a good friend of Bram Stoker – the creator of Dracula! Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker were brought up near one another in Dublin. Oscar’s first sweetheart, Florence Balcombe, eventually turned Oscar down and went on to marry Bram Stoker … So the vampires come in to the story because of Bram Stoker’s interest in them … There was a great deal of interest in vampirism at the time.

What was your goal with this book? Do your goals for each book differ or is there one general goal? Related question: Who do you see as your audience for these books?

My goal with this book – and all the others – is simply to entertain. All I want to do is create a rattling good murder mystery – a traditional murder mystery in the tradition of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers. My first priority is to tell a good story that obeys the mystery rules. At the same time, my characters are real people, so as well as serving up a historical mystery I am giving you a biography of Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker and The Prince of Wales. It’s a history-mystery, where I hope I have got the history right and I hope the mystery really intrigues.

What are you up to next both in terms of this series and in terms of other projects.

I am just finishing the fifth Oscar mystery – the one that takes him to the Vatican – and beginning to wonder where to take him next. I have had him touring America – he met P T Barnum and Jumbo the Elephant, you know, as well as Mark Twain and Walt Whitman – and working with a theatre company in Paris. I have taken him to Italy and France and Switzerland. Where next? The joy of Wilde is that he travelled widely and knew so many people. There was tragedy in his life, of course, but laughter too. I want to represent the variety of his life – not just the stuff that everybody already knows. By day, I am writing more Wilde mysteries. By night, I may soon be back on stage – appearing in London in a play by Oscar Wilde!

This is what I call my bonus question: What question do you wish you would get asked but have never been asked: here’s your chance to ask and answer it.

THE QUESTION: You seem such a nice guy, why are you so fascinated by MURDER? THE ANSWER: As Oscar pointed out: there is nothing quite like an unexpected death for lifting the spirits.

I saw this quote in the book and thought it might represent well what you have done with this book and the series. Do you agree? The quote, from Oscar Wilde, of course, is, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite iI like it!

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • martin

    A poor pretense at scholarship

  • Aaron Chapman

    Brandreth is a good storyteller, and a great character himself. The books are good fun!