This reading group guide for Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Gyles Brandreth. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
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Arthur Conan Doyle, exhausted from the wild success of his Sherlock Holmes mystery series, retreats to Germany to relax and respond to a large quantity of fan mail. Moments after arriving at his hotel, he meets his friend Oscar Wilde. As the two sort Sherlock Holmes fan mail, they come across a mysterious package, postmarked Rome, containing a mummified human hand. Another package contains a lock of hair or wool, and a third contains a human finger with a distinctive ring. Wilde and Conan Doyle head to Rome immediately to investigate the mystery, where they meet a cast of characters ranging from “Dr. Death,” a Swedish euthanasia enthusiast, to a Jesuit Monsignor who is attempting to eat his way through the entire animal kingdom. When a fifteen-year-old murder mystery overshadows the mummified body parts, Wilde and Conan Doyle put the clues together to solve the Vatican murders. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In the first pages, Wilde exclaims to Conan Doyle, “You cannot deny your destiny. No man can”
(page 8). Do you agree?
2. Throughout the novel, Oscar Wilde refers to his fondness and admiration for John Keats and his poetry. What is it about Keats’s life, work, and death that connects Wilde to him in such an important way?
3. Oscar Wilde is described several times throughout the novel as an aesthete,
defined as a person who has or affects to have a special appreciation of art and beauty. Is this a compliment coming from Conan Doyle?
4. As a scientist, Conan Doyle is observant and factual in his descriptions, while Oscar Wilde takes leaps of faith based on hunches. How would the story be different if Wilde narrated rather than Conan Doyle?
5. What modern day celebrities or artists remind you of Conan Doyle and Wilde? If you were casting this movie, whom would you choose for these roles?
6. When the two men open the mysterious packages addressed to Sherlock Holmes, how did each of their reactions reflect their personalities?
7. On the train to Rome, readers are introduced to Irene and Martin Sadler. What are your initial impressions of the two? Do you think Oscar Wilde’s deductions are far-fetched or accurate?
8. The details about the papacy in this book are historically accurate. Does learning details about specific eras while reading novels enrich your reading experience? Did reading about the inner workings of the Catholic church add a level of interest and mystery?
9. Do you think that Dr. Axel Munthe’s mysterious companion, dark designs, and enthusiasm for euthanasia make him an untrustworthy character?
10. Conan Doyle finds himself attracted to Irene Sadler, but it is important to him to remain faithful to his wife. Were you pleased that he honored his vows, or were you, like Wilde, rooting for him to live in the moment and pursue the romance?
11. Why do you think Sir Rennell Rodd seemed so put out by Wilde? Do Wilde’s affectations make him likable or obnoxious?
12. One of the Monsignors describes Agnes as “the personification of innocence” (page 207). Why was Agnes so precious to the Monsignors and Pope Pius IX?
13. There are a great many coincidences that tie this story together, one being that Oscar Wilde met several principal characters fifteen years previously. Another is the Cesare Verdi/Gus Greene connection. In your opinion, do these coincidences add to or detract from the excitement of the mystery?
14. When the killer is revealed, were you surprised? Who had been your primary suspect or suspects?Enhance Your Book Club
1. The Italian Monsignors have a tradition of gathering together to speak English, read Sherlock Holmes, and enjoy English tea. Serve a proper English tea at your book club, complete with, of course, cucumber sandwiches.
2. The Monsignors have an inside joke that they encompass the seven deadly sins. Go around the room and figure out which sin each book club member personifies.
3. Several of Rome’s landmarks are described in the novel, including the ancient Colosseum and the pyramid tomb of Gaius Cestius. Research and discuss how the landmarks and terrain have changed over the last century.
A Conversation with Gyles BrandrethWhat is it about Wilde’s life and the papacy that compelled you to write this novel?
Oscar Wilde’s life is extraordinary—so much happened to him and he knew so many remarkable people. He knew actors and artists, politicians and poets. He mixed with all conditions and types of men and women—from princes to street prostitutes. But when I discovered that as a young Oxford student he had been given a private audience with the Pope at the Vatican, I thought immediately, I must—I simply must—make that the starting point for one of my Oscar Wilde murder mysteries. Eat your heart out, Dan Brown. Oscar got there first!The novel is rich with historical facts about Wilde, Conan Doyle, Rome and the Vatican, and the papacy of Pope Pius IX and Pope Leo XIII. What research techniques did you use?
Everything in the novel that you would expect to be factually correct is so—I hope. I have been diligent in my research and for this book I travelled to Rome and stayed in the Hôtel de Russie, where Wilde stays in the story; visited Keats’s apartment, where Dr. Axel Munthe lived; spent time in the Anglican church; and secured a privileged and remarkable tour behind the scenes at the Vatican. The sacristy in the novel is as I found it when I visited it. I have been privileged to sit on the Seat of Tears. I have done my utmost to ensure that the details of life at St. Peter’s in the 1890s are all correct. (If you happen to be a cardinal and spot a mistake, do be sure to let me know. I don’t claim to be infallible.)Wilde wrote several essays about the work and life of John Keats. What did Wilde find so magnetic about Keats? Do you have a favorite Keats poem?
Wilde admired youth and beauty—and Keats had both. Wilde loved the quality of Keats’s poetry and was moved by his personal history and the tragedy of his early death. In putting words into Wilde’s mouth for my novel, I have borrowed from Wilde himself. One of my favourite books is The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde,
edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis, and I recommend the letters in the collection where Wilde writes about his love for Keats. I am not ashamed to admit that my favourite Keats poem is “Ode to a Nightingale.”
Of the characters in the book, quite a few are historical figures including the popes, Sir James Rennell Rodd, Axel Munthe, and of course Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle. What different techniques do you use when writing about a historical figure versus a character you are inventing?
None at all. They are all real to me. With the characters who happen to be historical figures I try to get the facts right: I do my research in the library and on the internet. I read “around” them; I read biographies of them; I try to find copies of their correspondence, to help hear their voice; and I get pictures of them to keep on my desk as I write. With those I have invented, I still do the research, but it’s a little easier. I just have to look into my head.Wilde criticises Nicholas Breakspear for being an unoriginal thinker. What do you, and what does Wilde, see as the harm in unoriginal thought?
Wilde was not an intellectual snob. He did not set himself up as someone superior to others. But he found originality exciting and more interesting than predictability. Breakspear in the novel wants to be someone special, he wants to appear as an original. He sets himself up as someone out of the ordinary. Oscar sees at once that Breakspear is not as original as he pretends to be. That arouses suspicion in Oscar but not contempt.When you began this novel, did you have a great deal of familiarity with the Catholic church, including the differences between the Jesuits and Capuchins?
I am an Anglican by upbringing—like Oscar Wilde. My wife is a Catholic—like Arthur Conan Doyle. I have been a churchgoer, off and on, all my life. I know a lot of priests and I am intrigued by their vocation—and by the rites and rituals of the church. I am also fascinated by the heritage of the Anglican communion and the Catholic church, so part of the pleasure of writing the book has been delving into this world and trying to understand the mind-set of those who dwell there.Does it get easier or more difficult to channel Wilde’s distinctive voice and personality in your novels as the series continues?
It gets easier. I have been fascinated by Wilde since I was a child. My father was a friend and colleague of H. Montgomery Hyde, who published the first full account of the trials of Oscar Wilde in 1948, the year I was born. As a boy, I lived in London in the street Oscar Wilde’s mother lived in; I lived around the corner from the Wildes’ home in Tite Street. Later I lived in Sloane Street, near the Cadogan Hotel, where Wilde was arrested in 1895. At my boarding school, Bedales in Hampshire, I got to know the school’s founder, John Badley (1863–1965), who had been a friend to Oscar and Constance. The Wildes’ elder son, Cyril, was a pupil at Bedales. I have been soaking up the words and world of Oscar Wilde all my life. I am a friend of Merlin Holland, Oscar’s only grandchild, who generously reads my books—and does his best to put me right when I go wrong. In the 1970s I produced a stage version of The Trials of Oscar Wilde
. In 2010, as an actor, I appeared as Lady Bracknell in a musical version of The Importance of Being Earnest
. In writing these mystery stories about Oscar and his circle, I have spent months—no, years—studying the man from every angle. I feel I know him quite well now. Not completely, of course. And the more I know him, the more intrigued I become.
Do you see yourself as more like Oscar Wilde or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in personality and working style?
I would love to have Oscar’s genius and wit; I would love to have Arthur’s fundamental decency. They were two remarkable men. They were very different as people, but each was a man of ambition and extraordinary achievement. Oscar was the more flawed of the two, of course, and that may make him more interesting as a hero in a series of murder mysteries—in the way that Sherlock Holmes is more charismatic than Dr. Watson. I fear I am not very like either of them. I am more in the mold of Robert Sherard, the poet, journalist, and serial biographer of Wilde, who is the narrator in several of the novels—and may be again in the next: Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol