One of the shining stars of historical crime fiction returns with this eagerly anticipated addition to the series that Booklist hails as “pitch-perfect” and the Toronto Globe and Mail calls “a lot of fun.”
In Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man’s Smile, the famous playwright and raconteur leaves England for a lecture tour in the United States, where he meets P.T. Barnum, sees Jumbo the Elephant, becomes involved in a saloon shoot out, and entertains Broadway’s brightest stars. But soon Wilde becomes entangled with the LaGrange acting dynasty, whom he befriends aboard an ocean liner. Things are not what they seem with this family, and Oscar’s shrewd curiosity may get the better of him as he investigates their hardships. Once the troupe arrives in Paris to perform Hamlet, the tragedies mount. As Oscar digs deeper into these seemingly random events, he will discover a horrifying secret…one which may bring him closer to his own last chapter than he could ever imagine. Gyles Brandreth has crafted another enchanting entertainment that is as intelligent as it is beguiling.
This reading group guide for Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man’s Smileincludes discussion questions and a Q&A with author Gyles Brandreth. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
1. As a reader, what were your first feelings toward Eddie Garstrang? What were your first impressions of Edmond La Grange? How did your emotions toward these characters change throughout the book? What were major turning points for you?
2. Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man’s Smile is set in America, London, and Paris. Each of these places has unique characteristics, but all share some general similarities. How are these places similar and different?
3. What was the effect of reading the story through Robert’s eyes? How would it have been different if Oscar had done the narrating?
4. Oscar writes in his journal of Madame La Grange, “Old age has no consolations to offer us. The pulse of joy that beats in us at twenty has become sluggish. Limbs fail, senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memories of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to” (page 47). Do you agree with his harsh words about old age?
5. Speaking to Robert, Oscar says, “[M]any a young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by imitation of the best models, might grow into something really great and wonderful. But, as a rule, he comes to nothing. He either falls into careless habits of accuracy . . . or takes to frequenting the society of the aged and well-informed. Both things are equally fatal to his imagination” (page 67). Is Oscar right? Is this meant to describe the fate of young men or the essence of imagination?
6. Throughout the novel, rumor and innuendo play a large role in shaping people’s perceptions. What is different about rumors in the 1890s versus the present day? What is the same? In which time period did rumors play a larger role?
7. Of morality Oscar says, “I never came across anyone in whom the moral sense was dominant who was not heartless, cruel, vindictive, log stupid, and entirely lacking in the smallest degree of humanity. . . . I would rather have fifty unnatural vices than one unnatural virtue” (page 168). Do you agree? What does this quote reveal about Oscar’s perception of the world around him? Do you trust Oscar?
8. How does the author use language and imagery to bring the characters to life? Did the book’s characters or style in any way remind you of another book?
9. “It’s a story told by actors and, as you should know by now, stories told by actors are rarely to be trusted” (page 262). Which of the actors in the story did you trust the most? Trust the least? Why?
10. Whose story is this? If you had to pick one, is it Oscar’s story, Robert’s, or the La Granges’? Why?
A Conversation with Gyles Brandreth
Authors often remark that they put a little bit of them-selves into their characters. How strongly do you identify with each of your main characters? How are you different?
As a writer, I’d like to be like Oscar Wilde. As a human being, I’d like to be like Conan Doyle. In reality, I am Robert Sherard. I admire Wilde’s way with words—and his extraordinary personal style—and I envy his philosophy, but he had genius. Conan Doyle had genius, too. Sherlock Holmes is arguably the most celebrated fictional character ever created. But Conan Doyle was also a wonderful human being: courteous, courageous, compassionate. He was a great man. Robert Sherard (a real person, genuinely Wilde’s first biographer) is what I am, however: a hero worshipper, an observer, a journalist, and a biographer who spends much of his life with great men but is aware of his own limitations—and vulnerability.
You have a deep knowledge of Oscar Wilde’s character and personality. If you were to meet him in person, what would you want to ask him first?
“Why, in 1895, did you bring your own house down upon yourself by instigating the legal action that led to your downfall? Why, between trials that spring, when you could have escaped in safety to France, did you not do so? What is the moment in your life you most regret? And the moment in your life in which you felt yourself most ‘realised’?” Actually, what I’d probably ask him first is: “Have you read my books? What do you think? Have I got it right?”
Why did you set this book in the place and time that you did? Do you have a special link to the American West or the theatre in Paris?
Oscar’s first visit to America was an important experience for him—and I have a feeling for the United States in that era because my father’s great-grandfather, Dr. Benjamin Brandreth, was an American and a “big man” in his way in the America of that era. He was a New York state senator, a millionaire medicine salesman, and a friend of P. T. Barnum, among others. Paris was central to Oscar’s life: that is where he met Robert Sherard; that is where he died. French culture in general, and the French theatre in particular, were always important to Oscar. They have been to me. I went to a French school. I have been visiting the theatre in France since I was a boy. I have a tiny apartment in one of the Paris streets featured in this novel. I know the streets of Paris—these streets—well. I love them.
Your novel is tremendously engaging and can easily be read in one sitting. Oscar and Robert’s path in this book is a whirlwind. Did you work on the book for a long time or finish it very quickly?
This is the third in a series of mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde and his circle. In a way, what I am trying to do is write a sort of serial biography of Wilde, my flawed hero, and at the same time a series of traditional mysteries. Essentially, while the rest of the world is living in the twenty-first century, I am living at the end of the nineteenth. I am completely absorbed in this period and in the lives of all the characters: I know their biographies, I walk the streets they walked. Writing each novel takes roughly a year: three months planning the plot and doing extra research; nine months writing. I do other things (I am a television reporter and presenter, and I do radio in the UK) but on writing days I am very disciplined. I start at eight a.m. and I continue until seven p.m., and I aim to achieve one thou-sand words. (They always need revising! The lighter they feel, the heavier has been the workload to get them that way.)
What is your favorite book by Oscar Wilde? What is your favorite quote?
My favorite book? The Complete Works. Seriously. It is the range of Wilde that I find fascinating. Of course, I love the fairy tales and The Importance of Being Earnest is a truly wonderful play, but dip into the Complete Works at any page and you will find something to warm the heart and challenge the intellect. What is intriguing about Oscar Wilde is the way that he is thinking all the time. My favorite quote? Given that my hero is a detective and these are mysteries, it has to be: “There is nothing quite like an unexpected death for lifting the spirits” (except now I can’t quite remember if he said it first—or I did).
How was writing this novel a different experience from writing your first two Oscar Wilde mysteries? What was harder about the process? What was easier?
You can read my Oscar Wilde mysteries in any order. I wrote Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance first and, in it, I reckon I worked harder on establishing Oscar as a personality (and as a credible sleuth) than I did on the mystery itself. Now I think my priority is to create a good story, a strong plot, a real mystery that is a satisfying puzzle. That done, I then let Wilde and his friends loose and we see what happens! It has not got easier or more difficult, and it’s still fun. As well as writing about these real men and women, I am also hoping to write a mystery that is a tribute to the tradition of the great Victorian and Edwardian pioneers of detective fiction.
What was your inspiration for this story?
Oscar’s visit to Leadville, Colorado. It really happened. That’s where I began. I simply took it from there. I also wanted to show readers how Oscar and Robert Sherard first met, so I had to go to Paris when I did—because that’s when they were there. And I have the book begin and end as it does because I needed Conan Doyle to feature. Incidentally, all that I tell you about Conan Doyle and John Tussaud is true.
As you relate in your author’s note, much of the book is centered on actual history. What is your research process like? How does your research directly or indirectly affect your writing?
I try to make my research process meticulous. I want you to read this book confident that what you are learning about Wilde and his circle—and Wilde’s American tour and the Paris theatre of the 1880s and life in Reading Gaol, etc.—is accurate. The research is important to me because I enjoy it and I learn from it. Yes, it inspires: it triggers ideas for the plot. For example, I had the duel taking place in the Bois de Boulogne in my plot outline, but then I visited the Buttes Chaumont in Paris just before starting to write the novel and realized, suddenly, “Yes, this must be where the duel took place.” My description of the place is based on personal observation. The same is true of the house of the Princesse de Lamballe where the Doctors Blanche had their clinic. As the guest of the current resident (the Turkish ambassador to France) I visited it. (That reminds me. I must send His Excellency a copy of the book. It is available in French. Indeed, the series is appearing in a variety of languages and countries. For news of these, check out www.oscarwildemurdermysteries.com.)
To what other writers would you compare your writing style? Who do you enjoy reading? What books influenced you to become a writer?
I don’t compare my writing style to anybody’s. I am the only guilty party here! Of course, I was brought up on the mysteries of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. I love a traditional English mystery. I am sure that shows. Who do I enjoy reading? The Victorians mostly and all the obvious ones: Austen, Gaskell, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope. My favorite novel is either Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett. Influences? Well, Sherlock Holmes has been my fictional hero since I was quite a small boy and The Trials of Oscar Wilde was the first non-fiction book I ever read! So the true answer to the question is Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Do you have plans for your next Oscar Wilde book?
Yes, I already have detailed plans for nine more—and ideas for several beyond that! The joy of Wilde is that he knew everybody and went everywhere and had a roller coaster of a life. The possibilities are infinite. Eventually, I will be writing mysteries based on his time in prison and after— when he eked out a living in France doing detective work under the name of Sebastian Melmoth. I have not quite decided which story I am going to begin writing up next. It may be a Christmas tale—I have a fondness for snow and the color of blood on snow. Or it may be Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders. You know that Oscar Wilde had a private audience with Pope Pius IX. You didn’t know? Well, he did. He really did. And they talked of murder . . .