OscarWildeandaGameCalled51000_fSo Susan over at You Can Never Have Too Many Books has started a very interesting discussion on the use of real-life people in fiction, whether it’s justified, how readers feel about it and so on. It’s a really thoughtful piece so do go and have a look, and I mention it here not just because I’m a fan of Susan’s blog (which I am) but because this is the second book in a row I have read which is very much set around people from the real world and I am trying to look at it in the light of Susan’s post and some of the comments that have appeared there already.

Oscar Wilde and a Game Called Murder kind of gives itself away in the title. It’s the second in Gyles Brandreth’s series (I wrote about the first one here) and does what it says on the tin; it turns Oscar Wilde into an amateur sleuth, and is packed with names that are recognisable to anyone who knows the detail of both Wilde’s life and the literary scene of the time. So, we have Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Lord Alfred Douglas, Robert Sherard (Wilde’s first biographer) and several other lesser known names.

The story is quite a simple one; it is 1892 and the Socrates Club is having one of it’s regular dinners, presided over by Wilde himself. At the end of the meal he suggests that the guests play a game called Murder – each of them will write anonymously on a slip of paper the name of the person they would most like to kill, and the other guests will try to work out who was chosen by whom and why. Not explained very elegantly but you can probably see where this is going. Two of the slips are blank, and the same name appears four times. And Wilde’s name is mentioned once, ditto his wife Constance. The game goes a little bit sour, but Wilde thinks nothing of it until over the course of the next three days the first three names on the list, including a parrot, die in more or less mysterious circumstances. Who around the table is a killer?

It’s an ingenious puzzle and I had absolutely no idea who the murderer was, what the motive was and how it all fitted together but I really enjoyed finding out. Wilde comes across as a complex, attractive and sympathetic figure and I learned a lot about the period. It’s well written and clearly meticulously researched by someone with an affection for both the characters and the setting. Do I think that’s what Wilde was really like? Probably not. Does it matter? I’m not sure it does. Did it make me want to find out more about the real people? Well, yes, especially in the case of Conan Doyle’s friend Willie Hornung who created Raffles; I’ve never read any of his stories and am off to find some now. The author’s note is very illuminating, and that is the one thing I do look for in a novel with real people; some indication of what’s true, and what’s invented. And there are some very nice in-jokes, too. Recommended.