“Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death” by Gyles Brandreth

When Oscar Wilde starts the game of ‘Murder’ during his Sunday Supper Club, where all of the guests anonymously choose someone they would like to kill, little does he realise the chain of events he will set in motion. That very evening, the first ‘victim’ chosen in the game dies in mysterious circumstances, and the game appears to have taken a very deadly turn. Along with his trusted friend, Robert Sherard, Oscar will need to use his instincts, intelligence and power of observation to find the killer – but time is of the essence, as Oscar himself is destined to be ‘victim’ number thirteen.

This is an unusual Victorian crime novel, as Brandreth has chosen to use real people as the main characters of his book, and using the author Oscar Wilde as his detective, at a time when he was at the height of his success and fame. The story is told by narrator, Robert Sherard, who was a life-long friend of Oscar Wilde and an author is in own right, publishing poetry, novels and biographies in his lifetime, including five books about Wilde. This is a very interesting tactic on Brandreth’s part, as it allows Sherard to show us the investigation as Wilde conducts it, without giving away his thought processes and conclusions, and allowing us to try and solve the mystery as the plot unfolds.

There are plenty of Wilde’s contemporaries involved in the plot, including fellow authors Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker as well as artist Walter Sickert, which adds to the colour and interest of the world that Brandreth creates in the novel. It is obvious from the warmth of the writing that the author has a great regard for his subject, and on the book website he tells us that Oscar Wilde was his first real life hero. With a plot that touches on class and social issues of the time, as well as including the classic mystery elements and set in an interesting time in British history, this books is very evocative of the period and a rewarding and entertaining read.

I’d never considered to be a great reader of crime novels, but I’ve recently realised that I actually enjoy what I would call ‘alternative’ crime fiction. I don’t like modern crime, with graphic descriptions of violent crime, but I do very much enjoy period crime novels like this, or funny, light hearted crimes books like the Jasper Fforde novels or the Agatha Raisin murder mysteries. This book definitely falls in to my ‘alternative’ crime list, and I’ve found out it’s actually the second in the series, so I shall definitely be on the look out for the first book (“Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders”) and eagerly anticipating the next one (“Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man’s Smile”) which will be published later this year.

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“Shakespeare’s Wife” by Germaine Greer

There is very little known about William Shakespeare’s wife, Ann Hathaway, and most of it is based on conjecture and assumption, rather than evidence. We do know she was older than Shakespeare, and most theories claim she bedded him and he was then forced to marry his pregnant seducer. Historians and academics interpret the little evidence there is to make Ann the villain of the piece, while Germaine Greer turns these theories on their head, and looks at the bigger picture of the society of the age, and suggests that Will and Ann were in love, backed up by discussions around the customs and laws of the time, and how history has recorded their affairs.

This is by no means an easy read as it is a very academic text, so be prepared for lots of reference numbers pointing you to the Notes section at the back of the book, as well as plenty of lists of the recorded evidence for other contemporaries of the couple which can be dry at times. As someone who doesn’t read books about history or academic pieces, I thought I might struggle with the book, but having heard the author on various radio programmes and podcasts talking about it, I was determined to have a go. Greer’s voice jumps out of the text at you, and I almost felt she was reading the book to me in my head, it was such a strong narrative, while the content is fascinating and a real insight into the society of the period, mixed with interesting views on how evidence of his feeling for Ann and their relationship may be seen in Shakespeare’s work. As the author points out to us, it appears that others who have attempted to examine Ann’s affect on Shakespeare and his work, seem to have used the lack of records as evidence that Ann didn’t conform to the customs and laws of the period, but it seems highly unlikely that a woman in this period would have been able to behave and live in such a way without being ostracised from her community.

It took me a while to finish the book, but it was an interesting and educating diversion from my normal reading, and thoroughly worthwhile.