Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance (Oscar Wilde Mystery Series #1)

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Overview

Lovers of historical mysteries will relish this chilling Victorian tale based on real events and cloaked in authenticity. The first in a series of fiendishly clever historical murder mysteries, it casts British literature’s most fascinating and controversial figure as the lead sleuth.

A young artist’s model has been murdered, and legendary wit Oscar Wilde enlists his friends Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Sherard to help him investigate. But when they arrive at the scene of the ...

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Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance (Oscar Wilde Mystery Series #1)

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Overview

Lovers of historical mysteries will relish this chilling Victorian tale based on real events and cloaked in authenticity. The first in a series of fiendishly clever historical murder mysteries, it casts British literature’s most fascinating and controversial figure as the lead sleuth.

A young artist’s model has been murdered, and legendary wit Oscar Wilde enlists his friends Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Sherard to help him investigate. But when they arrive at the scene of the crime they find no sign of the gruesome killing—save one small spatter of blood, high on the wall. Set in London, Paris, Oxford, and Edinburgh at the height of Queen Victoria’s reign, here is a gripping eyewitness account of Wilde’s secret involvement in the curious case of Billy Wood, a young man whose brutal murder served as the inspiration for The Picture of Dorian Gray. Told by Wilde’s contemporary—poet Robert Sherard—this novel provides a fascinating and evocative portrait of the great playwright and his own “consulting detective,” Sherlock Holmes creator, Arthur Conan Doyle.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"I always wanted to meet Oscar Wilde and now I feel that I have done, and shared a terrific, bizarre and frightening adventure with him. I recommend the experience." — Anne Perry

"Brandreth's accomplishment is evident in the force of Wilde's personality, which fairly leaps off the page...readers will delight in the effortless characterization and deft portrait of late-Victorian England." — Stephanie Barron, author of Jane and the Barque of Frailty

"A witty fin de siècle entertainment, and the rattlingly elegant dialogue is peppered with witticisms uttered by Wilde well before he ever thought of putting them into his plays." — Sunday Times (London)

"Genius...Wilde has sprung back to life in this thrilling and richly atmospheric new novel.... Magnificent...an unforgettable shocker about sex and vice, love and death." — Sunday Express

"This excellent novel...I'd be staggered if, by the end of 2007, you'd read many better whodunnits. Brandreth demonstrates supremely measured skill as a storyteller." — Nottingham Evening Post

"Wilde as detective is thoroughly convincing.... The period, and the two or three worlds in which Wilde himself moved, are richly evoked...an excellent detective story. I'm keenly looking forward to the rest of the series." — The District Messenger, journal of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London

"Brandreth...spins a tale of human frailty and self-preservation...a promising start." — Library Journal

"Oscar Wilde makes a stylish sleuth in this clever series debut." — Publishers Weekly

"A first-class stunner...[A] wow of a history-mystery...fascinating..." — Booklist (Starred review)

Library Journal

In 1889 London, writer Oscar Wilde finds the corpse of a male artist's model in a house used by men for assignations. Wilde later returns with friends Robert Sherard and Arthur Conan Doyle, but the body has vanished, the room cleaned, and the police declare that nothing has happened. While skirting Wilde's predilection for young men, Brandreth, a BBC broadcaster and novelist, spins a tale of human frailty and selfpreservation. The crime's solution is somewhat apparent, but this first title in a projected trilogy is still a promising start.
—Jo Ann Vicarel

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416534839
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • Publication date: 1/8/2008
  • Series: Oscar Wilde Mystery Series , #1
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 403,390
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Gyles Brandreth is a prominent BBC broadcaster, theatre producer, novelist, and biographer. He has written bestselling biographies of Britain’s royal family and an acclaimed diary of his years as a member of Parliament. Visit OscarWildeMurderMysteries.net.

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Read an Excerpt

The good die first,
And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust Burn to the socket.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Chapter One

31 August 1889

On an afternoon ablaze with sunshine, at the very end of August 1889, a man in his mid-thirties — tall, a little overweight, and certainly overdressed — was admitted to a small terraced house in Cowley Street, in the City of Westminster, close by the Houses of Parliament.

The man was in a hurry and he was unaccustomed to hurrying. His face was flushed and his high forehead was beaded with perspiration. As he entered the house - No. 23 Cowley Street - he brushed past the woman who opened the door to him, immediately crossed the shallow hallway, and climbed the staircase to the first floor. There, facing him, across an uncarpeted landing, was a wooden door.

Momentarily, the man paused — to smile, to catch his breath, to adjust his waistcoat, and, with both hands, to sweep back his wavy chestnut-coloured hair. Then, lightly, almost delicately, he knocked at the door and, without waiting for an answer, let himself into the room. It was dark, heavily curtained, hot as a furnace, and fragrant with incense. As the man adjusted his eyes to the gloom, he saw, by the light of half-a-dozen guttering candles, stretched out on the floor before him, the naked body of a boy of sixteen, his throat cut from ear to ear.

The man was Oscar Wilde, poet and playwright, and literary sensation of the age. The dead boy was Billy Wood, a male prostitute of no importance.

I was not there when Oscar discovered the butchered body of Billy Wood, but I saw him a few hours later, and I was the first to whom he gave an account of what he had seen that sultry afternoon in the curtained room in Cowley Street.

That evening my celebrated friend was having dinner with his American publisher, and I had arranged to meet up with him afterwards, at 10.30 p.m., at his club, the Albemarle, at 25 Albemarle Street, off Piccadilly. I call it "his" club when, in fact, it was mine as well. In those days the Albemarle encouraged young members — young ladies over the age of eighteen — indeed! — and gentlemen of twenty-one and more. Oscar put me up for membership and, with the generosity that was typical of him, paid the eight guineas joining fee on my behalf and, then, year after year, until the very time of his imprisonment in 1895, the five guineas annual subscription. Whenever we met at the Albemarle, invariably, the cost of the drinks we drank and the food we ate was charged to his account. He called it "our club." I thought of it as his.

Oscar was late for our rendezvous that night, which was unlike him. He affected a languorous manner, he posed as an idler, but, as a rule, if he made an appointment with you, he kept it. He rarely carried a timepiece, but he seemed always to know the hour. "My friends should not be left wanting," he said, "or be kept waiting." As all who knew him will testify, he was a model of consideration, a man of infinite courtesy. Even at moments of greatest stress, his manners remained impeccable.

It was past eleven-fifteen when eventually he arrived. I was in the club smoking room, alone, lounging on the sofa by the fireplace. I had turned the pages of the evening paper at least four times, but not taken in a word. I was preoccupied. (This was the year that my first marriage ended: my wife, Marthe, had taken an exception to my friend Kaitlyn — and now Kaitlyn had run off to Vienna! As Oscar liked to say, "Life is the nightmare that prevents one from sleeping.") When he swept into the room, I had almost forgotten I was expecting him. And when I looked up and saw him gazing down at me, I was taken aback by his appearance. He looked exhausted: there were dark, ochre circles beneath his hooded eyes. Evidently, he had not shaved since morning and, most surprisingly for one so fastidious, he had not changed for dinner. He was wearing his workaday clothes: a suit of his own design, cut from heavy blue serge, with a matching waistcoat buttoned right up to the large knot in his vermillion-coloured tie. By his standards, it was a comparatively conservative outfit, but it was striking because it was so inappropriate to the time of year.

"This is unpardonable, Robert," he said as he collapsed onto the sofa opposite mine. "I am almost an hour late and your glass is empty. Hubbard! Champagne for Mr. Sherard, if you please. Indeed, a bottle for us both." In life there are two types of people: those who catch the waiter's eye and those who don't. Whenever I arrived at the Albemarle, the club servants seemed to scatter instantly. Whenever Oscar appeared, they hovered attentively. They honoured him. He tipped like a prince and treated them as allies.

"You have had a busy day," I said, putting aside my paper and smiling at my friend.

"You are kind not to punish me, Robert," he said, smiling, too, sitting back and lighting a cigarette. He threw the dead match into the empty grate. "I have had a disturbing day," he went on. "I have known great pleasure today, and great pain."

"Tell me," I said. I tried to say it lightly. I knew him well. For a man ultimately brought down by gross indiscretion, he was remarkably discreet. He would share his secrets with you, but only if you did not press him to do so.

"I will tell you about the pleasure first," he said. "The pain will keep."

We fell silent as Hubbard brought us our wine. He served it with obsequious ceremony. (God, how he took his time!) When he had gone, and we were once more alone, I expected Oscar to pick up his story, but instead he simply raised his glass in my direction and gazed at me with world-weary, vacant eyes.

"How was dinner?" I asked. "How was your publisher?"

"Dinner," he said, returning from his reverie, "was at the new Langham Hotel, where the décor and the beef are both overdone. My publisher, Mr. Stoddart, is a delight. He is American, so the air around him is full of energy and praise. He is the publisher of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine."

"And he has given you a new commission?" I conjectured.

"Better still, he has introduced me to a new friend." I raised an eyebrow. "Yes, Robert, I have made a new friend tonight. You will like him."

I was accustomed to Oscar's sudden enthusiasms. "Am I to meet him?" I asked.

"Very shortly, if you can spare the time."

"Is he coming here?" I glanced at the clock on the fireplace.

"No, we shall be calling on him — at breakfast. I need his advice."

"Advice?"

"He is a doctor. And a Scotsman. From Southsea."

"No wonder you are disturbed, Oscar," I said, laughing. He laughed, too. He always laughed at the jokes of others. There was nothing mean about Oscar Wilde. "Why was he at the dinner?" I asked.

"He is an author, too — a novelist. Have you read Micah Clarke? Seventeenth-century Scotland has never been so diverting."

"I've not read it, but I know exactly who you mean. There was a piece about him in the Times today. He is the coming man: Arthur Doyle."

"Arthur Conan Doyle. He is particular about that. He must be your age, I suppose, twenty-nine, thirty perhaps, though he has a gravitas about him that makes him appear older than everybody's papa. He is clearly brilliant — a scientist who can play with words — and rather handsome, if you can imagine the face beneath the walrus moustache. At first glance, you might think him a big-game hunter, newly returned from the Congo, but beyond his handshake, which is intolerable, there is nothing of the brute about him. He is as gentle as St. Sebastian and as wise as St. Augustine of Hippo."

I laughed again. "You are smitten, Oscar."

"And touched by envy," he replied. "Young Arthur has caused a sensation with his new creation."

" 'Sherlock Holmes,' " I said, " 'the consulting detective.' A Study in Scarlet — that I have read. It is excellent."

"Stoddart thinks so, too. He wants the sequel. And between the soup and the fish course, Arthur promised him he should have it. Apparently, it is to be called The Sign of Four."

"And what about your story for Mr. Stoddart?"

"Mine will be a murder mystery, also. But somewhat different." His tone changed. "It will be about murder that lies beyond ordinary detection." The clock struck the quarter. Oscar lit a second cigarette. He paused and stared towards the empty grate. "We talked much of murder tonight," he said quietly. "Do you recall Marie Aguétant?"

"Of course," I said. She was not a lady one was likely to forget. She was, in her way, in her day, the most notorious woman in France. I met her with Oscar in Paris in '83 at the Eden Music Hall. We had supper together, the three of us — oysters and champagne, followed by pâté de foie gras and Barsac — and Oscar talked — and talked and talked — as I had never heard him talk before. He spoke in French — in perfect French — and spoke of love and death and poetry, and of the poetry of love-and-death. I marvelled at him, at his genius, and Marie Aguétant sat with her hands in his, transfixed. And then, a little drunk, suddenly, unexpectedly, he asked her to sleep with him. "O ? Quand? Combien?" he enquired. "Ici, ce soir, gratuit," she answered.

"I think of her often," he said, "and of that night. What animals we men are! She was a whore, Robert, but she had a heart that was pure. She was murdered, you know."

"I know," I said. "We have talked of it before."

"Arthur talked about the murders of those women in Whitechapel," he went on, not heeding me. "He talked about them in forensic detail. He is convinced that Jack the Ripper is a gentleman — or, at least, a man of education. He was particularly interested in the case of Annie Chapman, the poor creature who was found at the back of Dr. Barnardo's children's asylum in Hanbury Street. He said Miss Chapman's womb had been removed from her body — 'by an expert.' He was eager to show me a drawing he had of the wretched girl's eviscerated corpse, but I protested and then, somewhat foolishly, attempted to lighten the mood. I told him — to amuse him — of the forger Wainewright's response when reproached by a friend for a murder he had admitted to. 'Yes, it was a dreadful thing to do, but she had very thick ankles.' "

"Was he amused?" I asked.

"Arthur? He barely smiled, while Stoddart roared. And then, with great earnestness, he asked me if I believed I could ever commit a murder. 'Oh no,' I said. 'One should never do anything one cannot talk about at dinner.' "

"He laughed then, I trust?"

"Not at all. He became quite serious and said, 'Mr. Wilde, you make jests of all that you fear most in yourself. It is a dangerous habit. It will be your undoing.' It was in that moment that I realised he was my friend. It was in that moment that I wanted to tell him about what I had seen this afternoon...But I did not dare. Stoddart was there. Stoddart would not have understood." He drained his glass. "That, my dear Robert, is why we shall return to see my new friend in the morning. I must go now."

The club clocks were striking twelve. "But, Oscar," I cried, "you have not told me what you saw this afternoon."

He stood up. "I saw a canvas rent in two. I saw a thing of beauty destroyed by vandals."

"I don't understand."

"I saw Billy Wood in a room in Cowley Street."

"Billy Wood?"

"One of Bellotti's boys. He had been murdered. By candlelight. In an upstairs room. I need to know why. For what possible purpose? I need to know who has done this terrible thing." He took my hand in his. "Robert, I must go. It is midnight. I will tell you everything tomorrow. Let us meet at the Langham Hotel. At eight o'clock. The good doctor will be having his porridge. We will catch him. He will advise us what course to take. I have promised Constance I will be home tonight. Tite Street calls. You are no longer married, Robert, but I have my obligations. My wife, my children. I want to see them sleeping safely. I love them dearly. And I love you, too. Good-night, Robert. We have heard the chimes at midnight. We can at least say that."

And he was gone. He swept from the room with a flourish. He had arrived exhausted, but he appeared to depart refreshed. As I emptied the rest of the bottle into my glass, I pondered what he had told me, but could make no sense of it. Who was Billy Wood? Who was Bellotti? What upstairs room? Was this murder a fact — or merely one of Oscar's fantastical allegories?

I finished the champagne and left the club. To my surprise, Hubbard was almost civil as he bade me good-night. There were cabs in the rank on Piccadilly and, as I had sold two articles that month, I was in funds, but the night was fine — there was a brilliant August moon — and the streets were quiet, so I decided to walk back to my room in Gower Street.

Twenty minutes later, on my way north towards Oxford Street, as I turned from a narrow side-alley into Soho Square, I stopped and drew myself back into the shadows. Across the deserted square, by the new church of St. Patrick, still encased in scaffolding, stood a hansom cab and, climbing into it, illuminated by a shaft of moonlight, were a man and a young woman. The man was Oscar: there was no doubt about that. But the young woman I did not recognise: her face was hideously disfigured and, from the way she held her shawl about her, I sensed she was gripped by a dreadful fear.

Copyright © 2007 by Gyles Brandreth

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Introduction

Group Discussion Questions

1. Wilde theorizes on page 171, "'Suspense is everything! Only the banal — only the bearded and the bald — live for the here-and-now. You and I, Robert, we live for the future, do we not? We live in anticipation." How does the author build suspense throughout the story? In what ways, if any, does the tone of the book change as the characters get closer to solving the mystery?

2. What is Oscar Wilde's concept of truth? How does he display this concept in his actions and his descriptions of other's actions? Begin by examining page 261.

3. On page 38, Oscar says, "I have changed my mind since then. Consistency, as you know, is the last refuge of the unimaginative." Does this way of thinking describe the reasoning behind Wilde's actions throughout the story? If so, in what way?

4. Based on evidence in the book, why is Oscar determined to discover Billy Wood's murderer? Can we trust the reasons he provides?

5. All the information that we learn about Oscar is told to us through the pen of Robert Sherard. How might Sherard's own personal prejudices color the descriptions of Wilde that eventually reach the reader?

6. Veronica Sutherland is an intelligent woman trapped in a time period in which women have limited options. Do you sympathize with her situation and the decisions she makes?

7. On page 170, Oscar says, "It is a humiliating confession...but we are all of us made out of the same stuff....Sooner or later, one comes to that dreadful universal thing called human nature." Do the events of the book reinforce this conclusion? If so, how?

8. How do the main characters of the book differ in their interpretations of what love is?What does the book ultimately say about love? For a formulation of Oscar's personal opinion, see page 41.

Creative Tips for Enhancing Your Book Club

1. The main characters of this book are all well-known authors in their own rights. Choose one of the works of Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or Robert Sherard as the book for your next book-club reading. Try starting with Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he was in the process of writing during the events of this book.

2. Explore the exciting history of Oscar Wilde's real life by visiting http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_wilde. What were the details of his literary success at a young age and how did he end up spending two years in jail? Assign a different topic of research to each person in the group and bring in your results to share.

3. Find out more about the author by visiting his website, www.gylesbrandreth.net/index.html. Or, get ready for the next book in the Oscar Wilde Murder Mystery series by visiting www.oscarwildemurdermysteries.com.

4. Make a group date to attend a performance of one of Oscar Wilde's plays. Check local listings to see what is being performed near you. You may even wish to rent the DVD 2002 feature film of Oscar's most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest.

Gyles Brandreth is a prominent BBC broadcaster, theatre producer, novelist, and biographer. He has written bestselling biographies of Britain's royal family and an acclaimed diary of his years as a member of Parliament.

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Reading Group Guide

Group Discussion Questions

1. Wilde theorizes on page 171, "'Suspense is everything! Only the banal — only the bearded and the bald — live for the here-and-now. You and I, Robert, we live for the future, do we not? We live in anticipation." How does the author build suspense throughout the story? In what ways, if any, does the tone of the book change as the characters get closer to solving the mystery?

2. What is Oscar Wilde's concept of truth? How does he display this concept in his actions and his descriptions of other's actions? Begin by examining page 261.

3. On page 38, Oscar says, "I have changed my mind since then. Consistency, as you know, is the last refuge of the unimaginative." Does this way of thinking describe the reasoning behind Wilde's actions throughout the story? If so, in what way?

4. Based on evidence in the book, why is Oscar determined to discover Billy Wood's murderer? Can we trust the reasons he provides?

5. All the information that we learn about Oscar is told to us through the pen of Robert Sherard. How might Sherard's own personal prejudices color the descriptions of Wilde that eventually reach the reader?

6. Veronica Sutherland is an intelligent woman trapped in a time period in which women have limited options. Do you sympathize with her situation and the decisions she makes?

7. On page 170, Oscar says, "It is a humiliating confession...but we are all of us made out of the same stuff....Sooner or later, one comes to that dreadful universal thing called human nature." Do the events of the book reinforce this conclusion? If so, how?

8. How do the main characters of the book differ in their interpretations of what love is? What does the book ultimately say about love? For a formulation of Oscar's personal opinion, see page 41.

Creative Tips for Enhancing Your Book Club

1. The main characters of this book are all well-known authors in their own rights. Choose one of the works of Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or Robert Sherard as the book for your next book-club reading. Try starting with Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he was in the process of writing during the events of this book.

2. Explore the exciting history of Oscar Wilde's real life by visiting http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_wilde. What were the details of his literary success at a young age and how did he end up spending two years in jail? Assign a different topic of research to each person in the group and bring in your results to share.

3. Find out more about the author by visiting his website, www.gylesbrandreth.net/index.html. Or, get ready for the next book in the Oscar Wilde Murder Mystery series by visiting www.oscarwildemurdermysteries.com.

4. Make a group date to attend a performance of one of Oscar Wilde's plays. Check local listings to see what is being performed near you. You may even wish to rent the DVD 2002 feature film of Oscar's most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest. Simon & Schuster

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Customer Reviews

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( 15 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 15, 2012

    What a pleasant surprise

    This book was recommended to me as a "must read" by a close friend. She was absolutely correct.

    The story is fun and engaging, and (if I understand correctly) is based on true events. Brandreth has a wonderful command of the English language. I found myself busily, and happy engaged researching the definition of period-based and new words that I'd not seen before.

    Very, very, nice.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 24, 2009

    Wilde Times in London

    As a fan of Oscar Wilde, I was excited when I came across this title. Gyles Brandeth has created a new role for Wilde as an amateur sleuth, attempting to solve the murder of a young friend after the police fail to take an interest in the case. Along the way, Wilde is occasionally assisted by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the character Sherlock Holmes.

    Brandeth does a good job working many of Wilde's most memorable quotes into the storyline, and the teaming of Wilde and Doyle is an intriguing one. So long as the reader bears in mind that this is a work of fiction and not fact, this is a fun read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 16, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    It resulted it was not a Death of NO Importance

    I read Oscar Wilde and a Death of no imprtancefor my summer reading, and I came across it, by another book that recomneded it "The Daughter of Time" The boook juts kept me rading, and yeah although some parts disgusted me, just the thought of thinking into, though it was realluy a goood, book I love Mysterya nad history is one of my favorite subjects. the plot was intriguing, as was my suprise to how the murderer was, and reasons behind it. Im hoping to continue reading the series of Gyles Brandeth

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Gyles Brandreth is a wonderful storyteller

    In 1889 literary phenomena Oscar Wilde rushes to 23 Crowley St. in London to keep an appointment and is let into the home by an anonymous woman. Upstairs he finds the beautiful male prostitute Billy Wood lying naked on a Persian carpet surrounded by candles, his throat cut from ear to ear. The next day he tells Arthur Conan Doyle about it when they return to the scene of the crime, they find place void of blood except for a few drops on the wall and no body.---------------------- Doyle refers him to Scotland Yard Inspector Aidan Fraser who doesn¿t seem to have much interest in the case as there is no body or evidence. A package arrives at Oscar¿s home containing Billy¿s severed head. He believes Fraser will be interested in the case now but to make sure justice is done, the author conducts his own investigation and finds a plethora of suspect ranging from Billy¿s jealous step-father to a jealous lover. Oscar is determined to find out who the killer is.----------------- Gyles Brandreth is a wonderful storyteller who creates a clever mystery while also providing a glimpse into literary late Victorian England. Oscar Wilde makes a great Sherlock Holmes and his sexual proclivities are implied for instance the club he belongs to is filled with sodomite members. This tale is told in the first person by Wilde¿s good and logical friend another writer Robert Sherard adding to the sense of a literary journey into the late nineteen century.--------- Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 17, 2008

    Not as good as the origininal

    While a decent story is told, if you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes disappointment is inevitable. Brandreth spends a large majority of the book giving praise to Oscar Wilde and Billy Wood, the boy whom the story revolves around, and devotes little space to the solving of the crime. In short, Brandreth tries to be Doyle, Wilde tries to be Holmes, and Sherard tries to be Watson, but none are quite successful.

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    Posted November 13, 2010

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    Posted November 25, 2008

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    Posted April 13, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2010

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