The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 7, 2012

Danya Walker: Authors star in historical mystery series

By Danya Walker
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — I am a huge fan of mysteries, especially historical ones, reading a wide variety and always on the lookout for a new author. So I was delighted to discover a new series featuring Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle and a cast of other historical figures by Gyles Brandreth.

Oscar Wilde is at the height of his popularity (and just a few years away from his trial for “gross indecency” that resulted in him serving two years of hard labor) and Doyle’s famed character Sherlock Holmes is Oscar’s model for detecting when murder and mysteries fall at his feet.

The first book in the series is “Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance,” narrated by Robert Sherard, who is the great-grandson of famed poet William Wordsworth. Oscar discovers the body of Billy Wood, a beautiful young man who was a male prostitute and artist’s model, ritually posed with his throat cut.

When he returns to the scene with friends Robert Sherard and Arthur Conan Doyle, the body is missing and the room is immaculate except for a few blood spatters that Doyle discovers high on the wall.

The police refuse to investigate since there is no body, so Oscar, with the help of his friends, decides to find Billy’s killer. The trail takes them to London, Kent, Oxford, Edinburgh and Paris before Oscar finds the answer.

Gyles Brandreth does a superb job foreshadowing the tragic downfall of Oscar Wilde with his choice of the murder victim in this novel. Billy Wood is a victim that most people of that time would not have cared about, and Oscar’s determination to solve his murder is touching. Learning about early embalming techniques was also an intriguing touch.

“Oscar Wilde and a Game Called Murder” is the second book, with characters Robert Sherard and Arthur Conan Doyle not only returning but new ones also being introduced -- such as Dracula creator Bram Stoker, Willie Hornung (who brought us jewel thief Raffles), the Marquess of Queensberry (who is best known for bringing rules to boxing) and Charles Brookfield (the first actor to portray Sherlock Holmes on stage).

The story starts with Oscar hosting a Sunday dinner party with seven participants, each bringing a guest. Oscar has them playing an after-dinner game called “murder” with everyone writing down the name of someone they would like to kill. The goal is to figure out who wrote which name and why.

But when the game quickly turns dark, with one guest named multiple times, and Oscar and his wife both named, the get-together comes to an uncomfortable close. Early the next morning, the first victim named is found dead -- burned to death in what is termed an unfortunate accident. Then the second person is found dead in their sleep, raising the thought that maybe someone is working their way through the list.

Oscar is on the case, utilizing many of the same techniques as Sherlock Holmes. He is determined to keep his wife, Constance, safe and bring the killer to justice.

One of my favorite parts of this book was about the Rational Dress Society, an organization geared towards promoting fashion for women that didn’t “deform the body or endanger it.”

Women at that time period often wore undergarments weighing more than seven pounds, not counting the outside layers. An unbelievable amount of women died every year when their clothing caught fire from candles or hearths because of the many layers.

Another interesting layer to these books was the Holmes fascination by Oscar Wilde and Doyle’s determination to kill off his most famous creation. I enjoyed reading about Wilde making statements about people based only on tiny clues, but then explaining how he was able to come to his conclusions. The author weaved in many wonderful Wilde witticisms throughout the stories, showcasing why Oscar Wilde was considered a star of the literary world for his time.

There are many different mystery series featuring historical figures, authors and literary characters galore, and Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde mysteries are a wonderful addition to the genre.

Danya Walker is the assistant circulation supervisor for the Joplin Public Library.