I have no idea why US publishers often change a book’s title when bringing it over to North America. Maybe they think it would market better, but for me it just makes no sense. I got attracted to this mystery novel because of its bright yellow cover that is published in the UK, and the infamous Oscar Wilde as a main character, not the title. Moreover, in this book Oscar is not just a dashing, dazzling socialite who writes amazing literature, but also a cunning amateur detective who takes on investigating a death that only he knows about. The Candlelight Murders open with Oscar arriving on 23 Crowley St in London to meet with a student, only to find a ritualistically murdered young male prostitute lying on the floor. Horrified to recognize his friend Billy Wood in the dead youth, he flees the scene and waits another day before telling his friend Robert Sherard about the incident.
The book is filled with real-life celebrities like the mentioned Robert Sherard, who was a prominent poet and a friend of Oscar Wilde. Robert serves a sort of Doctor Watson role to Oscar, being the narrator and a chronicler of the events. The reader sees the story unfold through his eyes, which leaves a lot of Oscar’s activity in the shadow. We must suffer from curiosity and get confused by the writer’s shenanigans along with Robert, which makes the dynamics of the plot very similar to Sherlock Holmes novels. Coincidentally, Arthur Conan Doyle is also featured in the book. He has just published his first novel, – A Study in Scarlet – and is introduced to Oscar. Mr. Wilde is so enamored with his new friend, that he constantly compares himself to Sherlock and even boasts of some influences over the character. There are other famous people mentioned here and there, but these two play the most important role in this mystery.
I do have a bit of a problem with Oscar Wilde playing at Sherlock Holmes here like he invented the character. Upon meeting Conan Doyle for the first time, Oscar dazzles him with deductive skills by guessing Arthur’s destination and purpose after the meeting. Conan Doyle is obviously impressed and somehow shocked by his friend’s deducing ability, but why should he be? Why would Conan Doyle be taken aback like Doctor Watson was upon Sherlock’s amazing ability to guess the brand of cigars by the traces of ashes, when he himself uses the method in his books? The real Arthur would probably just laugh and congratulate Oscar for being such a careful reader. Also, the declaration that Arthur is going to base Mycroft Holmes’s character on Wilde is pretty farfetched, not to mention unnecessary. I did not enjoy Conan Doyle being such an Osar Wilde fanboy.
The mystery itself was pretty good. I usually rate crime books based on how easily and when I can guess the culprit (not that I consider myself a genius, but it’s nice to remain in the dark for as long as possible). In this case, I wasn’t particularly sure about the identity of the murderer until shortly before the big reveal, which is great. Also, I wasn’t aware of the accomplice until some suspicions began rising in my head during the final scene. The subject matter, however, left me a bit puzzled. The Candlelight Murders featured homosexuality frequently and heavily, even deriving the entire murder plot from it. While Oscar Wilde was pretty famous for his trial based on alleged gay tendencies, I found that this literary representation of him is very detached from homosexuality altogether, being described as a committed husband and father. In the book, he explained his involvement with Billy Wood and another male prostitute as purely platonic. Oscar confessed to admire their young beauty, innocence, and talent, but claimed no involvement with them sexually. It is hard to judge whether the real Oscar Wilde was a homosexual or not, especially considering the times where a lot of artists had a very different take on homosexuality compared to the modern definition. Nevertheless, it felt that the author took a bit of an easy way, trying to appeal to the major public by masking gay with fatherly love.
To add on a more positive note, since I did enjoy reading The Candlelight Murders, I have to mentioned that the author really captured Oscar Wilde’s language and manners. It seems that substantial research was put into the book, including actual quotes from Oscar himself. Here are some examples of Wilde-isms, some real and some imaginative:
- “To win back my youth,” Oscar continued, unabashed, “there is nothing I would not do – except, of course, take exercise, rise early or give up alcohol.” p. 81
- “His father was a carpenter,” said Oscar; “we shall assume his mother was a virgin.” p. 100
- The mind’s eye is not a camera; it is an artist’s brush. It provides no photographic record, alas. It can bring back the colour of the day, the feeling of the moment, but the detail is all gone. p. 155
- “Prayers must never be answered, Robert! If prayers are answered, they cease to be prayers and become correspondence…” p. 207