Friday, January 20, 2012

Oscar Wilde: Detective!

Yesterday we looked at Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde, one of the most original and fascinating biographies of Oscar Wilde in years.  But … fiction writers have also pursued the shade of our favorite Victorian aesthete.  Have they fared as well as biographer Thomas Wright?
In short, no.  There is no shortage of novels that “star” or feature Oscar Wilde, and too many of them are hardly worth the time and effort necessary to read them.  Here are some to avoid.
Writer Gyles Brandreth has his own cottage industry of Oscar Wilde mysteries, with four already on bookshelves and more on the way.  They are (as of this writing): Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance, Oscar Wilde and a Game Called Murder, Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man’s Smile and, of course, Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders.  These books have the fairly original conceit of being “narrated” by Robert Sherard, a real-life poet and man of letters who wrote several volumes of reminiscence regarding his friendship with Wilde.  Various other luminaries of the period make appearances in the books, including Dracula author Bram Stoker, actress Sarah Bernhardt and, naturally, Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
There has been an enormous vogue for mixing historical figures and detective fiction ever since Nicholas Meyer wrote of Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes in his 1974 novel The Seven Percent Solution.  The Freud-Holmes novel is actually a very strong one, presenting a fresh look at two fascinating personalities, one actual the other fictional.  The downside of the book has been its long-ranging influence.  We have now been treated to a crime-busting Teddy Roosevelt, Leonardo da Vinci as detective, the poet Longfellow solving crimes, even, believe it or not, the sleuthing team of Edgar Allen Poe and Davy Crockett.  Conan Doyle and magician Harry Houdini has been paired together in so many novels, I’m sure their ghosts have taken up housekeeping.  I keep waiting for a mystery solved by LBJ’s dog.
It’s not the Brandreth’s Wilde mysteries are bad … they are often entertaining trifles.  But his concept of Wilde is in keeping with your secretary’s monthly book club: velvet jackets, a few tired epigrams and a touch of twee charm.  In addition, the frequent collaboration in these books between Doyle and Wilde rings false – they may have inhabited the same historic space, but they lived in different worlds.
Moving from the ridiculous to the more serious, we have Desmond Hall’s I Give You Oscar Wilde.  This biographical-novel is told from the point of view of one of Wilde’s acquaintances, and hits all the highs and lows of Wilde’s life.  It commits the one unpardonable sin when writing about Wilde: it’s dull.
Perhaps the most egregious offender in the Wilde-in-fiction sweepstakes is author Louis Edwards for his book, Oscar Wilde Discovers America.  Edwards writes of Wilde’s American lecture tour and his real-life valet, an African-American named Traquair.  Of course, the two become fast-friends (Wilde calls his manservant Tra) and when the young son-of-slaves is not whispering epigrams into the great man’s ear, he is opening him up to the possibilities of life.  At one point, deep under Tra’s influence, Wilde even predicts the advent of jazz.  (I swear I’m not making this up.)  Yes – you guessed it – Oscar Wilde Discovers America is The Help dressed with a green carnation.  And, like Kathryn Stockett’s novel, Edwards’ book is alternately tedious and ridiculous.
Others have used Wilde as a fictional character – and more successfully.  We’ll be looking at some of those books in future weeks.

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