The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries


The Telegraph
6 May 2007

Gyles Brandreth on the mystery of Oscar Wilde and Sherlock Holmes

by Gyles Brandreth

Eighteen months ago, just as I had finished writing a joint biography of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, I was taken to lunch by a publisher who generously offered me £500,000 to write a biography of Diana, Princess of Wales. Momentarily tempted (wouldn't you have been?), I declined before coffee was served. If you are going to write a book about someone, you must be ready to live with them for months on end. You must be a little in love with them. I had met Diana and liked her, but I could not have spent a year of my short life living inside hers. Instead (for less money but greater reward), I have written a novel about Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde, Illustration by James CareyI have been fascinated by Wilde for as long as I can remember. I was born in 1948 in Germany, where my father was serving as a legal officer with the Allied Control Commission. He counted among his colleagues H. Montgomery Hyde, who, in 1948, published the first full account of the notorious 1895 trials of Oscar Wilde. It was the first non-fiction book I ever read. ('Yes, doctor, from the adventures of Billy Bunter I graduated immediately to the champion of aestheticism. I agree, it does explain a lot.')

In 1960, when other boys at my prep school were leafing through Lady Chatterley's Lover beneath the bedclothes by torchlight, I was getting my illicit kicks from the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. According to my 1961 diary, I read the book from cover to cover - 1,118 pages in all. I can't have understood much, but I relished the language and learnt by heart his 'Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young' - eg 'Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.'

As a child I felt close to Wilde for another reason. From prep school I went on to Bedales (Britain's first coeducational boarding school), where Cyril, the elder of his two sons, had been a pupil. The school's founder, John Badley, had been a friend of Wilde's, and was still alive and living in the school grounds. When I was in my early teens and he was in his late nineties, I used to play Scrabble with him every Wednesday afternoon.

He talked to me a lot about Oscar Wilde. He told me (in 1965, at about the time of his 100th birthday) that he believed much of Wilde's wit was 'studied'. He remembers travelling back from a house party with him. Fellow guests came to the station to see them on their way. At the moment the train was due to pull out, Wilde delivered a valedictory quip, then the guard blew his whistle, the admirers on the platform cheered, Wilde sank back into his seat and the train moved off. Unfortunately, it moved only a yard or two before juddering to a halt. The group on the platform gathered again outside the compartment occupied by Wilde and Badley. Wilde hid behind his newspaper and hissed, 'They've had my parting shot. I only prepared one.'

Badley told me that, while Wilde was the most remarkable raconteur (George Bernard Shaw said, 'He was incomparably the greatest talker of his time - perhaps of all time'), he was also a wonderful listener. 'Wilde and his brother, Willie, learnt the art of listening when they were boys,' he said.Their father, a distinguished Irish surgeon and a noted wit, allowed his sons to sit in the corner of the family dining-room in Merrion Square on the nights when Dublin society came to dine. According to Badley, Sir William Wilde told the boys not to speak, only to 'listen and observe'.

My novel about Oscar Wilde is a Victorian murder mystery in which he is the detective. Wilde was also an acute observer. And he had a poet's eye. He observed, he listened, he reflected and then - with his extraordinary gifts of imagination and intellect - he saw the truth. Sherlock Holmes he isn't - but Mycroft Holmes, his brother, he might be... Seriously.

Amazingly, Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle were friends. They met in 1889, at the newly built Langham Hotel, in Portland Place. They were brought together by an American publisher, J. M. Stoddart. Evidently, Wilde, then 35, was on song that night and Conan Doyle, 30, was impressed - and charmed. 'It was a golden evening for me,' he said. The upshot of it was that Stoddart got to publish both Arthur Conan Doyle's second Sherlock Holmes story, The Sign of Four, and Oscar Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Could Wilde (brilliant, overweight and indolent) really be the model for Mycroft Holmes (brilliant, overweight and indolent)? Badley told me that he and Wilde had both been members of an occasional dining society, the Socrates Club. When Conan Doyle, four years after his first meeting with Wilde, introduced his readers to Holmes's elder bother (in The Greek Interpreter), he set him in an armchair in a gentlemen's club named after another Greek philosopher, Diogenes.

'Oscar was a delightful person: charming and brilliant, with the most perfect manners of any man I ever met,' Badley told me. 'Because of his imprisonment and disgrace, he is seen nowadays as a tragic figure. That should not be his lasting memorial. I knew him quite well. He was such fun.'

I am still having fun with Oscar Wilde, 107 years after his death, jolting with him in a four-wheeler through the fog-filled thoroughfares of what Conan Doyle called 'the murderous metropolis'. I find murder and Wilde go nicely together. As Oscar once said, 'There is nothing quite like an unexpected death for lifting the spirits.'

  • 'Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders', by Gyles Brandreth ( John Murray, £12.99), is published on Thursday
  • Illustration by James Carey

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