For a time known as fin de siècle (literally, “end of the century”), with all the foreshadowings of doom and finality that this implies, the 1890s were a surprisingly exciting and innovative decade. Amid the decadence and ennui we associate with it, the death of a century gave birth to some of the brightest myths and works of literature in our day. These include the writings of Oscar Wilde and the Sherlock Holmes mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which are both notable for their refusal to stay on the page. The creations of both authors are famous partly for the uncanny parallels they bore to their own existences–a pretty unnecessary occurrence, given that the lives of these remarkable men were exciting enough in themselves to fill quite a few volumes. And that’s what they’ve done–with the latest tome on the subject being Gyles Brandreth’s newest Oscar Wilde mystery, Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders.
Doyle and Wilde are the perfect pair for a mystery story: Wilde’s already availed himself of his skills four times in the four previous (and very well-received) tomes by Brandreth, and Conan Doyle – aside from being the creator of the greatest literary detective ever – was an amateur sleuth, having aided Scotland Yard in closing several cases. The two men are complete opposites–Doyle is calm, serious, and regular in his habits, while Oscar is flamboyant, poetic, theatrical, easily excited, and carried away – a bit like Holmes himself. He quotes Holmes’ lines at the latter’s creator with the same dramatic flair with which one would imagine the detective himself delivering them, making for some utterly delightful scenes between the two. Doyle and Wilde complete each other, fitting together as perfectly as puzzle pieces, with Doyle as the perfect Watson to Wilde’s Holmes.
The mystery itself begins with a few mysterious packages addressed to “Mr. Sherlock Holmes” at 221B (never mind that Baker Street didn’t actually possess a house numbered 221 back in 1892. Fans wrote in anyway.). These set the pair off on the trail of the “scarlet thread of murder,” as Holmes would call it, to Rome, “city of saints and martyrs,” as Wilde calls it. And not just Rome but the Vatican, a century before Dan Brown got there. Amid secrets and secret passageways, ambitions and manipulations, incense and tradition, Wilde uncovers a mystery that reaches back to the former Pope himself while Brandreth provides a detailed glimpse of life at the Vatican, including a fascinating look at Church history.
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.