The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries

Dead Man's Smile

Dead Man's Smile

Book 3:

Oscar Wilde and Dead Man’s Smile (title in UK & USA)

Book Description | Reading Group Guide | Q & A with Gyles

A Conversation with Gyles Brandreth, Author:

1. Authors often remark that they put a little bit of themselves into their characters. How strongly do you identify with each of your main characters? How are you different?

As a writer, I’d like to be like Oscar Wilde. As a human being, I’d like to be like Conan Doyle. In reality, I am Robert Sherard. I admire Wilde’s way with words, and his extraordinary personal style and I envy his philosophy, but he had genius. Conan Doyle had genius too. Sherlock Holmes is arguably the most celebrated fictional character ever created. But Conan Doyle was also a wonderful human being: courteous, courageous, compassionate. He was a great man. Robert Sherard (a real person, genuinely Wilde’s first biographer) is what I am, however. A hero-worshipper, an observer, a journalist and biographer who spends much of his life with great men, but is aware of his own limitations – and vulnerability.

2. You have a deep knowledge of Oscar Wilde’s character and personality. If you were to meet him in person, what would you want to ask him first?

“Why, in 1895, did you bring your own house down upon yourself by instigating the legal action that led to your downfall? Why, between trials that spring, when you could have escaped in safety to France, did you not do so? What is the moment in your life you most regret? And the moment in your life in which you felt yourself most ‘realised’?” Actually, what I’d probably ask him first is: “Have you read my books? What do you think? Have I got it right?”

3. Why did you set the book in the place and time that you did? Do you have a special link to the American West or the theater in Paris?

Oscar’s first visit to America was an important experience for him – and I have a feeling for the United States in that era because my father’s great-grandfather, Dr Benjamin Brandreth was an American and ‘a big man’ in his way in the America of that era. He was a New York state senator, a millionaire medicine salesman and a friend of P T Barnum, among others. Paris was central to Oscar’s life: that is where he met Robert Sherard; that is where he died. French culture in general, and the French theatre in particular, were always important to Oscar. They have been to me. I went to a French school. I have been visiting the theater in France since I was a boy. I have a tiny apartment in one of the Paris streets featured in this novel. I know the streets of Paris – these streets – well. I love them.

4. Your novel is tremendously engaging and can easily be read in one sitting. Oscar and Robert go through a whirlwind through the course of the book. Did you work on the book for a long time or finish it very quickly?

This is the third in a series of mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde and his circle. I have nine more planned already! In a way, what I am trying to do is write a sort of ‘serial biography’ of Wilde, my flawed hero, and, at the same time, a series of traditional mysteries. Essentially, while the rest of the world is living in the twenty-first century, I am living at the end of the nineteenth. I am completely absorbed in this period and in the lives of all the characters: I know their biographies, I walk the streets they walked. Writing each novel takes roughly a year: three months planning the plot and doing extra research; nine months writing. I do other things (I am a television reporter and presenter, and I do radio in the UK) but on writing days I am very disciplined. I start at 8.00 am and I continue until 7.00 pm and I aim to achieve one thousand words. (They always need revising! The lighter they feel, the heavier has been the work-load to get them that way.)

5. What is your favorite book by Oscar Wilde? What is your favorite quote?

My favorite book? The Complete Works. Seriously. It is the range of Wilde that I find fascinating. Of course, I love the fairy tales and The Importance of Being Earnest is a truly wonderful play, but dip into the Complete Works at any page and you will find something to warm the heart and challenge the intellect. What is intriguing about Oscar Wilde is the way that he is thinking all the time. My favorite quote? Given that my hero is a detective and these are mysteries, it has to be: ‘There is nothing quite like an unexpected death for lifting the spirits.’ (Except now I can’t quite remember if he said it first – or I did.)

6. How was writing this novel a different experience from writing your first Oscar Wilde mysteries? What was harder about the process? What was easier?

You can read my Oscar Wilde Mysteries in any order. I wrote Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance first and, in it, I reckon I worked harder on establishing Oscar as a personality (and as a credible sleuth) than I did on the mystery itself. Now I think my priority is to create a good story, a strong plot, a real mystery that is a satisfying puzzle. That done, I then let Wilde and his friends loose and we see what happens! It has not got easier or more difficult and it’s still fun. As well as writing about these real men and women, I am also hoping to write a mystery that is a tribute to the tradition of the great Victorian and Edwardian pioneers of detective fiction.

7. What was your inspiration for this story?

Oscar’s visit to Leadville, Colorado. It really happened. That’s where I began. I simply took it from there. I also wanted to show readers how Oscar and Robert Sherard first met, so I had to go to Paris when I did – because that’s when they were there. And I have the book begin and end as it does because I needed Conan Doyle to feature. Incidentally, all that I tell you about Conan Doyle and Mr Tussaud is true.

8. As you relate in your author’s note, much of the book is centered on actual history. What is your research process like? How does your research directly or indirectly affect your writing?

I try to make my research process meticulous. I want you to read this book confident that what you are learning about Wilde and his circle – and Wilde’s American tour, and the Paris theater of the 1880s, and life in Reading Gaol, etc – is accurate. The research is important to me because I enjoy it and I learn from it. Yes, it inspires: it triggers ideas for the plot. For example, I had the duel taking place in the Bois de Boulogne in my plot outline, but then I visited the Buttes Chaumont in Paris just before starting to write the novel and realized, suddenly, ‘Yes, this must be where the duel took place.’ My description of the place is based on personal observation. The same is true of the house of the Princesse de Lamballe where the Doctors Blanche had their clinic. As the guest of the current resident (the Turkish ambassador to France) I visited it. (That reminds me. I must send His Excellency a copy of the book. It is available in French. Indeed, the series is appearing in a variety of languages and countries. For news of these, check out the International Editions page).

9. To what other writers would you compare your writing style? Who do you enjoy reading? What books influenced you to become a writer?

I don’t compare my writing style to anybody’s. I am the only guilty party here! Of course, I was brought up on the mysteries of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. I love a traditional English mystery. I am sure that shows. Who do I enjoy reading? The Victorians mostly and all the obvious ones: Austen, Gaskell, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope. My favourite novel is either Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett. Influences? Well, Sherlock Holmes has been my fictional hero since I was quite a small boy and The Trials of Oscar Wilde was the first non-fiction book I ever read! So the true answer to the question is Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle.

10. Do you have plans for your next Oscar Wilde book?

Yes, I already have detailed plans for nine more – and ideas for several beyond that! The joy of Wilde is that he knew everybody and went everywhere and had a roller-coaster of a life. The possibilities are infinite. Eventually, I will be writing mysteries based on his time in prison and after – when he eked out a living in France doing detective work under the name of Sebastian Melmoth. I have not quite decided which story I am going to begin writing up next. It may be a Christmas tale – I have a fondness for snow and the color of blood on snow. Or it may be Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders. You know that Oscar Wilde had a private audience with Pope Pius IX. You didn’t know? Well, he did. He really did. And they talked of murder . . .