In May of 1895 Oscar Wilde was convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years of hard labor in prison. Most of that time was spent in Reading Goal. In 1897, he was released and went to live in France. A year later he published his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He spent the rest of his life on the continent where he eventually died in 1900, never having returned to England. This is all historical fact.
During his incarceration two warders in two different prisons and an elderly chaplain were killed, at first it was thought accidently, but not for long. Mainly as a result of Wilde’s observational skills—developed while working with his friend Arthur Conan Doyle in the past, it is discovered that what seemed like an accident was indeed murder. This is all historical fiction.
Both fact and fiction form the context and the plot of the sixth book in Giles Brandreth’s series of historical thrillers centered on the great nineteenth century poet, playwright, and wit, Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Goal. The premise of the series is that Wilde’s powers of observation and intelligence are very like those of his friend Doyle’s great detective. Like Sherlock Holmes he sees the little things the rest of us overlook, and he has the ‘grey cells’ to see their relevance. While he actually works with Doyle in some of the other books in the series, in the current volume he is on his own.
Most of the book is Wilde’s first person account of the two year imprisonment told after the fact as he sits in a café in Dieppe, France, drinking with a new acquaintance named, for some odd reason, after the dwarf in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. If his narrative is neither as spritely or witty as one might expect from the author of The Importance of Being Ernest and “The Decay of Lying,” it is certainly reasonable considering he may have been chastened by his years in Reading. Realism has to make up for what is missed in witty repartee. What wit there is comes from Wilde quoting his own writing, or from other characters quoting it. This gives the book—the bulk of it set in the prison—a much darker tone than others in the series.
It does give a fine picture of what life was like for a prisoner in Victorian England. Brandreth is serious about the accuracy of the historical setting as well as the biographical superstructure of his story. Details about the separation system upon which the prisons were run like the hoods prisoners were required to wear to keep their faces hidden from each other and the rules for washing feet twice a week before using the water to clean the floors of the cell create an indelible picture of what it must have been like in the prison. The novel is filled with these kinds of telling details—the different whips used for children and adults, the protocol for the morning of an execution, the oakum picking and stone breaking, He even includes an appendix with a list of the prison rules.
Although some of the lesser characters are more or less the conventional stereotypes one would expect in a prison story—sadistic warders, a canting clergyman, a good natured medical man, a martinet in charge, Brandreth also manages an original or two. There is the Indian in the next cell who was an aide to Sir Richard Burton, he of The Arabian Nights. There is the fetchingly named Sebastian Atitus-Snake who poisoned his wife claiming he was Napoleon and thought his Josephine was cheating on him. There are the sodomite hating warders who turn out to be hypocrites. Given the enforced isolation of the prison, he manages to get enough variety of interaction to keep the reader attentive and guessing.
If you like a good “who done it,” one that seems to have been solved and settled but saves a surprise or two for the end, Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Goal is the book for you. You may well figure out what’s going on before you get to the end, but even though I should have known better, it surprised this reader.