Review: Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol

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I don't often review historical fiction here, but this one is worth a closer look for anyone interested in the history of prisons.

I've been a fan of the Oscar Wilde Murder mysteries by Gyles Brandreth for quite some time now, with all six of the series cheering up my bookshelf with their colourful covers. I enjoy Oscar Wilde as an author and for the legendary personality that history has attributed to him, so it's always a joy to see an author slip on the outfit of his memory and send him off on fanciful adventures
The whole series is a success for delivering the fun of reading about Oscar and his friends' personalities at close quarters and for putting Oscar into the role of Sherlockian sleuth and delivers some entertaining murder-mysteries. What really makes the books special, however, are the real passion that the author delivers when it comes to historical authenticity in the details. He cares about being as faithful as the subject matter allows to Oscar's life and the lives of his friends and he works hard to give you the kind of flavour of late-Victorian life that stays on your tongue long after.

This latest book in the series is, in my opinion, the weakest when it comes to the actual murder-mystery itself. It never quite hangs together as well as its predecessors, nor does it excite or entertain to the same level. But for this book this is not what the main focus is about, instead the book works hard to give the readers a real view into the most difficult part of Oscar's life - his time incarcerated in Reading Gaol for 2 years for 'indecency'. From a narrative perspective seeing Oscar cut off from the hedonistic life of fame he previously enjoyed is fascinating and saddening, but the author takes especial care to make sure that the setting is pitch-perfect. Clearly he had painstakingly researched the prison life of the 1890s and this book is a great success in showing it in a way that we can all relate to the horrors and loneliness that prisoners were expected to endure.

As with all the books in the series, the author adds on appendixes to showcase some of the historical facts behind the historical fiction. For example, we see that Oscar -like the other prisoners - would have been placed in solitary confinement over his time, lived under the threat of beatings for even the smallest of misdemeanours, was expected to work hard labour (often alongside children) and, even when walking about the prison, was not permitted to speak and was forced to wear a hood that restricted his identity and his eyesight. As with every institution these rules encouraged both viciousness and kindness from the wardens who oversaw the running of the place.

The book is worth picking up if you're interested in viewing the Victorian prison system through a historical figure's eyes and would certainly be a good starting point to dive deeper into the subject.

Prisoners in 1860s wearing official hoods

If you fancy reading the series in order they are:

-Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders
-Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death
-Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man's Smile
-Oscar Wilde and the Nest of Vipers
-Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders
-Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol

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