The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries

Murders at Reading Gaol

Murders at Reading Gaol

Book 6:

Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol (title in UK & USA)

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

Group Discussion Questions

  1. Author Gyles Brandreth narrates his story as Wilde biographer Robert Sherard. Why do you think he does this? What effects did that have on your reading of the story?

  2. Working in the prison garden, Wilde thinks about the turning points in his life and admits, “I would sooner say – or hear it said of me – that I was so typical a child of my age, that in my perversity, and for that perversity’s sake, I turned the good things of my life to evil, and the evil things of my life to good.” [182] What does he mean by this? Why would he wish people to think it about him?

  3. Several times in the story Wilde utters the line, “each man kills the thing he loves,” which he also incorporates into his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Which characters exemplify this statement? Do you think the statement is true?

  4. When viewing Warder Braddle’s grave on the prison grounds, Wilde thinks “in this life we are all of us are confined in different ways.” [183] Consider the ways the prisoners and the prison guards are confined. How is Wilde still confined after his release? How is he a prisoner of his own habits? In what ways do you feel confined?

  5. In a conversation with the prison surgeon, Wilde says, “I wrote when I did not know life, doctor. Now that I do know the meaning of life, I have no more to write. Life cannot be written; life can only be lived.” [288] Do you agree or disagree with this theory? What does it say about authors?

  6. Discuss how the silence rule at the jail affected Wilde, and possibly the other inmates. How would react to such a drastic, inhumane rule?

  7. Despite being found guilty of multiple murders, Wilde found likeable qualities in Sebastian Atitis-Snake. What does that say about Wilde? About Atitis-Snake?

  8. Recall the “Rules for Prisoners in the 1890s.” [364] What purposes are the jail’s harsh methods meant to serve, and how are they different from their actual effects on the inmates? Wilde thinks, “Prison life makes one see people and things as they really are and that is why it turns one to stone.” [229] Does prison life have this effect on jailers and prisoners alike?

  9. Wilde expresses his unabashed dislike of journalists when he states, “newspapers today chronicle with degrading avidity the sins of the second-rate, and with the conscientiousness of the illiterate, give us accurate and prosaic details of the doings of people of absolutely no interests whatever.” [259-260] How do you think this sentiment compares with the pursuits and integrity of journalists—newspaper, television, and online—today?

  10. Reread Warder Stokes’ description of the hanging beginning on page 322, chronicling the orderly schedule, the different types of wood used for the gallows, even the participants enjoying breakfast as the convicted man hangs. Consider also the Regulations for the Administration of Corporal Punishment at the end of the story. Discuss your reaction to the methodical process for the killing of a man. Does the procedure make it more or less civilized? Is government-sanctioned killing a necessary evil? How do the rules and regulations make it easier for people to tolerate the prison system – both those within its walls and society at large?

  11. Throughout the story Wilde claims, and indeed seems, to care deeply for his wife and sons, yet his behavior after his release from prison further hurts his wife and alienates him from his family. What does that say about his affection for them? In the afterward Wilde wonders, “Why is it that one runs to one’s ruin?” [358] Why does he?

  12. Did Wilde’s act of “saving” Tom by murdering Atitis-Snake redeem him of his crimes in your opinion? In what ways did the significance of Wilde’s act change when you learn that, as an adult, Tom runs a male brothel?

  13. How do you think Wilde’s life might have turned out differently had he not been convicted and sent to jail? In what ways was he changed by his incarceration?


The book includes an excerpt from Wilde’s poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Read the entire poem, either online, in a library book, etc. Discuss the parallels between the poem and the story. How does it further illuminate Wilde’s frame of mind and experiences as a prisoner?

Of his life Wilde says, “I threw the pearl of my soul into a cup of wine. I went down the primrose path to the sound of flutes. I lived on honeycomb.” [194] In honor of his passion for life, set the mood at your meeting by serving decadent h’ors d’oeuvres and desserts. Elegant teas would make a fitting accompaniment, as would champagne (regular or nonalcoholic).

Explore the five other books in the series. As Brandreth indicates, there is no particular order in which they must be read. To help make your selection, you can peruse excerpts and find reviews on the series website, For further Oscar Wilde study, Brandreth includes several excellent biography recommendations in the Acknowledgements section at the end of the book.

Consider throwing a murder mystery party with your club members. There are many board or electronic games available online to provide the structure. You can serve murder-themed (or named) dishes or have participants dress in Victorian costumes. To further customize the game, incorporate a selection of Wilde’s many witticisms into the fun!