Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol by Gyles Brandreth (Touchstone, $16.00, 327 pages)
Have you every read a work of historical fiction that was oddly engaging, painfully true to the era and to the place depicted? Regardless of whether your answer is “Yes,” or “No,” Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol will easily surpass any read of this genre. Aside from some quotes and references to plays, poems and books by Wilde, this reader began the book with a blank slate as to the man or his life. The thought of a man as well-known and quoted as Wilde spending two years in a dark and dank prison was hard to imagine.
The particular time portrayed in author Gyles Brandreth’s mystery novel is the period that Oscar Wilde served in a British prison, or gaol. His crime was notorious behavior, late 19th century code for engaging in a gay lifestyle. The import of the sentence, two years at hard labor while housed in solitary confinement, is brought to the reader’s consciousness through a graphic narrative by Wilde as he experiences sentencing, intake, daily humiliation and threats at the hands of the prison warders (guards) and governor (warden).
While the first chapters are rather dreary, the story line begins to take shape and a remarkable tale makes it easier to accept the harshness of Wilde’s circumstances. Another literary figure, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is blended into the mysterious deaths that take place in the prison. Yes, there are a few sympathetic characters for balance and to move the plot along. Yes, I did check on the internet for the real story behind Wilde’s time in prison. Remarkably, some of the facts are as bizarre as the fiction that is blended into the story.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol was released on May 14, 2013. “Intelligent, amusing and entertaining.” Alexander McCall Smith