Monday, November 24, 2008

Oscar Wilde Does Double Duty

What do you want to be when you grow up? When we’re young, it’s the question with a hundred answers. A fireman one day, a nurse the next, an astronaut after that. But time and talent and circumstance eventually push a sole option to the forefront, the rest receding to become favorite hobbies or fond memories. That this singular option consumes the majority of our time and energy should comes as no surprise, for it’s difficult to do one thing well, let alone two or three. Would that Gyles Brandreth -- author of the literary tribute cum historical mystery Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance -- had understood that this also holds true for novels.

The premise is promising: Oscar Wilde, the playboy poet of Victorian England, enters a rented room in No. 23 Cowley Street on a warm day in late August and discovers the ritualistically murdered body of one Billy Wood, a young male prostitute. Wilde flees and, after gathering witnesses, returns to find all evidence of the crime has vanished. He may be a man more used to ink than ichor, but he doesn’t plan on letting this one go unsolved. With the aid of Robert Sherard (great-grandson of William Wordsworth) and Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes), Wilde plans to bust the conundrum wide open.

The execution, though, trips up A Death of No Importance. First, there are the minor irritations, such as Brandreth’s idiosyncratic use of em dashes (which must have driven his editor mad) and the fact that Sherard, to whom falls narration duty, is just uninvolved enough in the proceedings to make one question why he was included at all. But what really sends the book sprawling is inadequate blending of the historical with the mysterious. Wilde’s life was marked by impulsiveness and extravagance, two characteristics that don’t mesh well with criminal investigation. One moment he’s tracking down some vital bit of info, only to be interrupted by a ferocious desire for oysters and champagne. A return to unraveling the murder most foul ends up diverted by a jaunt to Oxford. Then Wilde takes a two-month sabbatical to write The Picture of Dorian Gray. Compelling genre work it’s not, which is a shame because somewhere in the novel there’s a worthy study of a literary icon or an interesting mystery -- but not both.

(Picture: CC 2008 by

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