Jack the Ripper: Case Closed - Gyles Brandreth
Jack the Ripper: Case Closed - Gyles Brandreth ****
"I can resist everything except temptation" Oscar Wilde famously remarked, and who indeed could resist the idea of Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle teaming up to uncover the identity of Jack the Ripper? I mean, who else would be better equipped to solve the Whitechapel murders? Conan Doyle is a doctor and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, while his friend Oscar Wilde, the author of 'The Picture of Dorian Gray', knows much about the hidden dark side of human nature, and has some experience himself with the kind of the secrets that lurk behind the respectable surface of Victorian society. The suspense is going to be unbearable, let's hope it lasts....
1894 is both the best of times and the worst of times (or the best of crimes and worst of crimes, if you'll go with one of Oscar Wilde's scandalously witty barbs here). It's a period when London society is playing host to some of the most famous names in the history of the arts, Wilde and Doyle rubbing shoulders with Bram Stoker, Lewis Carroll, the Elephant Man and Ellen Terry, but the legacy of Jack the Ripper's murders three years previously has drawn attention to another side of London, to the poverty, crime and prostitution in the East End of the city, with its opium houses and its dens of iniquity, where secrets are kept hidden by a "Freemasonry of the damned".
Three years after the last murder however, it looks like the Ripper murders have started up again, and this time in the more respectable district of Chelsea. A body has been found close to the Wilde residence on Tite Street that bears all of the hallmarks of the Whitechapel killings. So has the Ripper resurfaced? Chief Constable Macnaghten has narrowed down the list of suspects to five names, names well-known in London society, and he thinks that Oscar Wilde, with his sound judgement of character and his social contacts, might be invaluable in determining who might have the motive and opportunity - to say nothing of the abominable nature required - to carry out these horrendous murders.
The teaming up of Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde is a good one, Doyle playing the Watson to Wilde's Holmes, but evidently it's Giles Brandreth who is the critical member of the team that is going to determine how well Jack the Ripper: Case Closed works. With Brandreth as the President of the Oscar Wilde Society and a series of Sherlockian adventures behind these characters, the wit and wisdom of both writers is in very safe and capable hands. Brandreth frequently uses Wilde's own words, liberally quoting and fitting his famous aphorisms into every available opportunity to give the situation a sense of authenticity, even if the great Victorian playwright was never particularly noted for his criminal investigation skills.
On the other hand, there are other aspects that can be revealed about Wilde through the juxtaposition of the contemporary Ripper murders. More than just simply reveling in the exotica of Victorian society with its Dickensian characters, its prostitutes, freaks and lunatics, Brandreth uses the Ripper murders as an opportunity to explore the paradox of Wilde's own curious and contradictory behaviour; the author a decadent disciple of beauty, and yet endlessly fascinated - in a way that would lead to his own destruction - by the darker side of human nature.
"Goodness!", exclaims Conan Doyle at one point when appraised of the activities in one of the colourful East End dens of sin that they visit, "Goodness has nothing to do with it" quips Wilde, and therein you get a sense of the playful and revealing nature of Brandreth's latest Wilde caper. He draws brilliantly from the interests and activities of both men (there is even a séance, which would be an area of interest to Conan Doyle in later years), and puts them to good use to explore the reasons why a killer like Jack the Ripper might have operated as he did. Whether it comes any closer to revealing the identity of Jack that is claimed by the "case closed" in the title is however something that you're going to need to read the book to discover.
Jack the Ripper: Case Closed by Gyles Brandreth is published by Corsair on 15th June 2017