Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders

Written by Gyles Brandreth
Review by Mary Sharratt

Oscar Wilde makes his debut as a fictional sleuth in this recent addition to the spate of historical detective novels showcasing famous historical figures (i.e., The Pale Blue Eye, The Interpretation of Murder).

When Wilde discovers a murdered teenage rent boy, his naked corpse surrounded by guttering candles and incense, he enlists the help of his friend Arthur Conan Doyle to convince reluctant police inspector Aidan Fraser to investigate. They unveil a tangled web of underground male prostitution and vice in fin-de-siècle London.

Despite its premise, the book is not as suspenseful as one might expect, being so firmly, almost hagiographically, focused on Wilde, rather than on the unfolding mystery. The author delights in quoting Wilde’s witticisms and paints a very affectionate portrait. Unfortunately the other characters suffer in comparison—even Conan Doyle appears a pale shadow—and the female characters are so badly drawn, they border on the farcical.

The power of a successful murder mystery rests on the depth and intelligence of its villain. In this book, the murderer is so unconvincing that the entire dénouement falls flat. Not even Wilde’s most delicious bon mot can save the day.