Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders opens in 1890, at a glamorous party hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Albemarle. All of London’s high society—including the Prince of Wales—are in attendance at what promises to be the event of the season. Yet Oscar Wilde is more interested in another party guest, Rex LaSalle, a young actor who claims to be a vampire.
But the entertaining evening ends in tragedy when the duchess is found murdered—with two tiny puncture marks on her throat. Desperate to avoid scandal and panic, the Prince asks Oscar and his friend Arthur Conan Doyle to investigate the crime. What they discover threatens to destroy the very heart of the royal family. Told through diary entries, newspaper clippings, telegrams, and letters, Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders is a richly atmospheric mystery that is sure to captivate and entertain.
This reading group guide forOscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, 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.
In the fourth installment of Gyles Brandreth’s critically-acclaimed Oscar Wilde series, Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders, Oscar Wilde is tasked by the Prince of Wales to solve a particularly scandalous mystery. After a party hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Albemarle in the Spring of 1890, the Duchess is found murdered, with deep puncture wounds to her throat. Oscar and two of his closest confidantes—fellow writer Arthur Conan Doyle and journalist Robert Sherard—quickly find themselves at the heart of a Sherlock Holmes–style investigation. But when it begins to appear that the truth could have disastrous implications for the Duke’s and Prince’s reputations, the Prince orders Oscar and his crew to desist.
Unwilling to stop before he has solved the mystery, Oscar ignores the Prince’s demand and the search continues. As they move from London to Paris and back again, the team meets many interesting personalitiess, perhaps most notably the self-proclaimed vampire Rex LaSalle with whom Oscar finds himself immediately infatuated. More blood is shed in the form of Louisa “Lulu” Lavallois—the Prince’s favored dancer — and the late Duchess’s maid, Nellie Atkins.
Despite encountering more than a few guilty suspects, Oscar is able to reveal the murderer’s true identity during a memorial reception held for the Duchess. The revelation forces all who hear to realize that, though a man be of a royal family, his past can still catch up to him in the end.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. On the first page of the novel, Oscar Wilde offers these words as a sort of personal motto: “The man who thinks of his past has no future. . . . Personally, I give myself absolutely to the present.” Do you think Oscar lives up to his words? In what way is he a man of the present?
2. In the same vein, which character do you think Oscar would be quickest to label a “man who thinks of his past”? How is this character tethered to his history?
3. Discuss how Oscar’s and Arthur’s views of love and marriage differ. Which view do you feel is more aligned with a modern-day way of thinking?
4. “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all. I live. And I rejoice that I am able to live as I do—freely, without fear and to the full” (page 46). Rex LaSalle proves to be an intriguing character. Oscar is immediately smitten with him, but Robert never quite trusts him. What was yourfirst impression of the handsome Rex?
5. Oscar and Rex’s relationship quickly blossoms. How does the book approach the issue of Oscar’s homosexuality? Are there ways in which his relationship with Rex is similar to Prince Albert Victor’s relationship with Frank Watkins? In which ways do they differ?
6. What is your opinion of the psychiatric work being done by Lord Yarborough and Professor Charcot? Do you find their practices immoral, or do you believe they are acting “for the good of science”? Were your feelings about their profession altered in any way after reading Jane Avril’s experience in the hospital?
7. How are women represented throughout the novel? Consider those women we meet (Lulu Lavallois, Lillie Langtry, Jane Avril, the Duchess of Albemarle, Nellie Atkins, Sister Agnes) as well as those who are not present (Constance Wilde, Louisa Conan Doyle).
8. What role did celebrated mind-reader Professor Onofroff play in this story? Ultimately, whose side was he on? Could he be considered a double agent? If so, how?
9. How did the different perspectives depicted in the letters, diary entries, and newspaper and telegram excerpts add to your understanding of the narrative? Similarly, which narrator did you find yourself most interested in?
10. Do you think there are any characters in the novel who are truly innocent, who hold no secrets and tell no lies? If not, which do you consider to be the mostinnocent? Consider the following statement: “Where there are secrets, there are lies, and where there are lies, there is danger” (page 52).
11. When Rex’s secret is revealed, were you surprised? Who had been your primary suspect before?
12. Arthur reprimands Oscar for allowing Rex to escape, reminding him that “the man is a murderer . . . Not a prince or a vampire, but a murderer.” Oscar memorably replies, “But he was impossibly handsome, wasn’t he?” (page 360). Do you think Oscar does the right thing by letting Rex leave the reception? Or does he let his passion for Rex get in the way of sound judgment?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. When in need of a refresher course on vampires, Oscar turns to theatre manager and vampire enthusiast Bram Stoker. What else can you discover about the history of vampires? Compare and contrast the way vampires have been portrayed in literature, film, and TV over time.
2. Oscar’s witticisms regarding love and life are peppered throughout the novel. Choose a few quotes that stand out to you and share them with the group. How do these quotes apply to your own life? If more than one person chooses the same quote, discuss: What is it about that particular saying that made it so memorable and/or applicable?
3. Throughout the novel, Oscar and his friends indulge in a number of delicious delicacies. Have each member of your group bring their favorite food or drink mentioned in the novel to your gathering, making for a tasty and Oscar-inspired discussion.
4. For more information on the Oscar Wilde mysteries series—including an Oscar Wilde photo gallery and a tour of Oscar’s London, narrated by author Gyles Brandreth—visit www.oscarwildemurdermysteries.com.
A CONVERSATION WITH GYLES BRANDRETH
If someone asked you to describe Oscar Wilde in just one sentence, what would you say?
It can’t be done—which is why I am writing a whole series of mysteries about him! He was a multitalented and complex character, both brilliant and flawed, both generous and selfish, who led a life that encompassed triumph and disaster. It is because there is so much to say about him that he is such an exciting man to write about. If you want “just one sentence,” here’s what he once said about himself: “I put my genius into my life and only my talent into my work.”
In a review of Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance, Stephanie Barron writes that “the force of Wilde’s personality . . . fairly leaps off the page.” Indeed, Oscar’s irresistible charm is noted by almost every character who spends more than a minute in his company. Is he a fun character to write?
Writing a book takes time—about a year in all—so you need to enjoy the company you are keeping during that time. I have now written five mysteries about Oscar Wilde and I am already planning the sixth. He is glorious company: intriguing, witty, generous, wonderfully intelligent, and very human. He’s the kind of man anyone would want to meet—and I have the pleasure of meeting him every working day. I like both him and the world he inhabits. I’m fascinated by Wilde and by his family (his remarkable parents, his long-suffering wife) and by the range of his associates. From princes to street prostitutes, Oscar Wilde knew all manner and conditions of men and women. By writing about him, I give myself the privilege of moving in his circle.
Which of Oscar’s many noted witticisms would you consider words to live by?
“Never commit murder. A gentleman should never do anything he cannot talk about at dinner.”
Before you began writing Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders, did you know how it would end? Was Rex LaSalle always destined to be the culprit?
Yes. Before I begin writing a murder mystery I work on the plot very carefully. I was brought up reading great mystery writers such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, and I believe there is a kind of unwritten contract between the author and the reader. You have to get the plot right—or at least try. You have to play the game. As your story proceeds, you have to provide clues that will enable the reader to solve the mystery in the way that your sleuth does. On the whole, I think that means that you do need to know roughly where you are going when you set out on your journey. That said, along the way, as the story develops, you can surprise yourself . . . the story can take on a life of its own.
Upon finding the Duke of Albemarle reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in his morning room, Oscar says, “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all” (page 215). Which books do you find yourself enjoying “over and over again,” and what is it about these books that keep your attention?
I think people reread the works of Jane Austen because they love the world she creates: it is a world that gives them a sense of well-being. Our favorite books are like old and trusted friends: we feel comfortable with them; we know we enjoy their company; they offer what a poet once described as “the security of known relationships.” Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories do that for me. I can read them over and over again and never tire of them. The other Victorian writers I enjoy rereading include Anthony Trollope, William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens.
When it comes to writing, what would you say is your greatest challenge?
Getting it right! I want to get the plot right: I want to write what the Victorians would have called “a rattling good yarn”—a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end; a story that holds you, intrigues you, and ultimately surprises you. I want to leave the reader satisfied. As well as making sure that my plot (and subplots) hang together, with the Oscar Wilde mysteries I want to get all the biographical and period details right, too. I want you to feel confident that all that you learn about Oscar Wilde and his world is accurate. I research the books meticulously. I visit the locations; I check out the food my characters eat, the clothes they wear, the shows they go to. Where I can, I find photographs of the characters themselves. I had pictures of Professor Charcot and Prince Albert Victor on my desk while writing this book. (If you search hard enough, you can find photographs of most of my characters somewhere on the Internet.) I do my best to ensure that what you are getting is an accurate account of Wilde’s world in the particular week or month or year in which my story is set. I am very blessed in that I have a good friend in Oscar Wilde’s only grandson, Merlin Holland. Merlin lives in France and very generously reads all my books, and when I make a mistake he lets me know. When he saw my first Oscar mystery, he was shocked to find that I had his grandfather drinking Dom Pérignon champagne. “Not possible,” said Merlin. “Dom Pérignon did not exist as a brand of champagne in Oscar’s day. Oscar Wilde drank Perrier-Jouët.”
Although many of your readers are likely to be familiar with Oscar Wilde, some may not. Yet your novels prove to be an entertaining and rich experience for both types of reader. Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write Oscar Wilde mysteries?
I am writing a book for people who enjoy a good story. My books are simply history mysteries. My characters happen to be real people (in the main), but you don’t need to know that—or to know anything about them—to read the story. I like to get the period detail right and I want to provide accurate portraits of Wilde and Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker and the Prince of Wales and all the rest, but what matters most to me is the story. If that intrigues you and rings true, then I have done my job. If it doesn’t, I must try harder!
The Oscar Wilde mystery series is now being published in twenty-one countries. When you first began writing the series, did you imagine this type of worldwide success for Oscar, Arthur, and Robert’s adventures?
I am proud and excited that these books now appear all over the world. They are especially popular in France, Russia, Italy, Korea, and Japan! There is even talk of them being developed into a TV series. I am surprised by the way the books have spread around the world, but perhaps I shouldn’t be. Oscar Wilde always hoped to join the ranks of the immortals, after all; and in Sherlock Holmes Arthur Conan Doyle created one of the most famous fictional characters in all history.
What details about the real Oscar Wilde do you choose to focus on when writing his character? Although Oscar Wilde wasn’t a detective in reality, do you strive to portray him as historically accurate? Do you ever find the need to revisit Wilde’s work to draw inspiration?
In these books everything that I tell you about Oscar Wilde’s personal and professional life is true. So far as we know, he was not a private consulting detectives, but he did meet Arthur Conan on the day I said he did, he did admire and enjoy Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and he certainly had the qualities that I ascribe to him—the qualities that I believe would have made him an outstanding detective. He was a good listener; he was a keen observer of human nature; he was highly intelligent and intuitive; he was a poet and had a poet’s imagination—he could make the kind of imaginative leap when solving a case that might not have been possible for an ordinary policeman. And he had another advantage over the “ordinary policeman”: Oscar Wilde was a gentleman and a charmer—he could go anywhere and talk to anyone. My Wilde is the real Wilde and I hope, too, that he is Wilde in the round. There is a danger today that the world views Wilde through the prism of his downfall. The story of his 1895 trial and imprisonment for homosexual offences tends to overwhelm almost everything else there is to know about him. He is so frequently depicted today as a gay icon and a victim of Victorian hypocrisy that we can too easily forget what a happy and delightful figure he was before the terrible year of 1895. He was a married man—and for several years a happily married man—and a proud father. The joy of writing a series of books like this is that, over the years, I hope to be able to paint a rounded portrait of my remarkable hero—a true portrait that takes you beyond the stereotype. In researching the books, I read everything I can about him. I also read the diaries, letters, and books of his friends and contemporaries—and of his enemies, too. (He had a few.) And I reread his own writing constantly—the plays; the poetry; the stories; the journalism; and, above all else, the letters. The two books that, for me, take the reader closest to the real Oscar Wilde are The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (2000) and Son of Oscar Wilde by Vyvyan Holland (1954).
What new adventures do you have in store for Oscar next?
Each of my books stands alone. You can read them in any order. My next story begins in April 1877 when Oscar Wilde, aged twenty, went to Rome and had an audience with Pope Pius IX. The meeting was remarkable—and it really took place. And if you want to discover what happened next, I hope in due course you will read the book. You won’t be surprised to learn that I am calling it Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders.