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The take-off point is Oscar Wilde’s famous imprisonment in 1895 for homosexual offences. The trial and imprisonment came when there was conflict rising within the British penal system; the strict old (and violent) rules we’ve seen in so many films and books, were facing new thinking. What Gyles Brandreth has created here is a lively mix of a sharp murder mystery, a historic situation in British prisons, and a flawed genius’s struggle through a devastating assault on his mind and spirit. Fear not – it’s not the depths of “Les Miserables”, but is nonetheless an eye-opening excursion into an unusual world in which the unlikely new prisoner – and accidental detective – Oscar Wilde is dropped when transferred from his first jail.

The atmospheric setting and the detective story are more than normally interlocked – the unique physical, administrative and philosophical character of this “modern” prison, and  the age-old variety of human characters, whether inmates, administrators, or guards.  We have a sharp depiction of the ‘separation ‘ system: inmates not slung together in communal cells, but confined individually. It’s not more humane. In what is nearly isolation, each is in a single, walled, thick-doored cell; forbidden speech at any time with anyone; literate or not, they are forbidden reading matter, letters or paper and pencil; have to wear a hood and veil obscuring their identity when outside their cell, even at chapel. Beyond this social obliteration, from the moment their incoming registration concludes, they have no name; they are their cell location.

So, under ‘separation’ the celebrated, wildly imaginative and flamboyant Wilde is no longer ‘Oscar Wilde’  but ‘C.3.3’  –  i.e. he’s the current inmate in Wing C, Level 3, Cell 3 of Reading Gaol and nothing more.  Wilde has already lost almost everything but his mind – social position, respect, wife and children, (whom he loved and, surprisingly, they him), friends, society, as well as wealth and creative freedom. Now comes a final humiliation —  he has lost his glittering name, his brilliantly created identity. In this world, he could well lose his mind.

But then we’d miss a fine adventure.

These prisoners, as in any institution, have created their own unofficial system, ways of side-stepping and subverting the official system from time to time. Hoods and veils don’t disguise who’s who and why they’re there, and soon this includes Wilde. He becomes involved willy-nilly with his odd neighbor in the adjacent cell, and with a slew of other prisoners both male and female, children and elderly, moral, immoral and amoral, with lives as different as their crimes. There are equally a variety of guards. Two of them are brothers working different prisons, and the unlikely death of one will trigger the detective story, more death, and Wilde’s psychological journey through imprisonment.

Reading Gaol - Central hall with overpasses and stairs.

Lucky France. The cover there has an illustration of the critical central hall of Reading Gaol.

The murder is contingent upon access to the uniquely designed interior wings and stairs arrangement and the particular security plans that surround it. I found the layout’s deliberate role in the inmates lives so intriguing I looked up images on the internet and was really dropped into the story then.

Wilde’s role as detective is deftly created. A new prison governor (historically accurate),  replacement for the restrictive old governor, is a relative progressive (also historically accurate). In a classic plot move, he slowly draws Wilde, the unwilling insider in every sense, into his investigation of the guard’s death. In addition to being appalled at Wilde’s decline, he sees Wilde’s creative intelligence not as defiance and perversion, but as a potential tool. The relationship between these two intelligent men with intensely different yet overlapping world views is a wonderful part of the book. In fact, I found the most of the characters of more than usual murder-mystery interest.

There are more death, twists and turns,  red herrings, real drama, with a heck of a climax, and sympathetically used – not dumped –  accurate history along the way. (Wilde, being Wilde, did not do well by his own freedom when it came. But that’s history, not mystery.) Definitely recommended reading.

Oscar Wilde and the Murders in Reading Gaol turns out to be part of a highly readable series I wasn’t familiar with, and it’s always a kick to discover that despite all the books I’ve already read, there’s a whole new stack of titles just waiting to tickle my intellect such as it is, and love for mystery and history.  Thank you, Gyles Brandreth.