Historical Mystery Book Excerpt: Oscar Wilde And The Return Of Jack The Ripper

Oscar Wilde and the Return of Jack the Ripper by Gyles Brandreth brings together Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle in a novel that is at once a gripping detective story and a witty portrait of two of the most brilliant Victorian minds.

This new historical mystery takes place in 1894 in London. When it appears that the notorious Jack the Ripper has returned to London, Chief Constable Melville Macnaghten recruits his neighbor Oscar Wilde to help him solve the case, hoping the author’s unparalleled knowledge of the London underworld might be exactly what the police need to finally capture the serial killer.

In an account narrated by Wilde’s close friend, fellow author Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilde gathers together suspects from the theaters, brothels, asylums, and traveling circuses of East London in the hopes of finding the true identity of Jack the Ripper before he can strike again. But even as the pair of amateur detectives venture further and further into a tangled web of criminals, performers, and prostitutes, new killings come to light that bring the investigation right back to Wilde’s own neighborhood.

What follows is an excerpt from this novel provided to Mystery Tribune by Pegasus Books.

*****

January 1894

‘It was the best of crimes, it was the worst of crimes.’

‘What are you saying?’

‘That’s your opening line, Arthur. “It was the best of crimes, it was the worst of crimes.”‘

‘I don’t need an “opening line”, thank you very much, Oscar.’

‘Oh, but you do, my dear fellow.’

‘What for?’

‘For your new book. It must open with that line, it really must—’

I interrupted: ‘What new book?’

‘The one you are starting today—tonight, when you get home. Your account of our latest adventure—the most remarkable of all our extraordinary adventures, Arthur.’ He raised his glass to me. His bright eyes brimmed with tears.

‘You’re drunk, Oscar.’

‘I hope so,’ he beamed. ‘I have made an important discovery, you know. Alcohol taken in sufficient quantities produces all the effects of intoxication.’

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde leaned back against the mantelpiece and laughed. He was thirty-nine years of age and looked both older and younger. He had the moonlike face of an ageing cherub, with full pink lips; waxy, pale cheeks; dark, arched eyebrows and what he called, proudly, ‘a strong Greek nose’. He was over six feet in height and, though running to fat, still a fine figure of a man because he held himself well. He was unquestionably ‘someone’. He was unmistakably the celebrated Oscar Wilde. He dressed the part. That Monday morning he wore an elaborately tailored three-piece suit of blue Donegal tweed and a broad silk tie that matched perfectly the indigo-coloured winter rose that was his buttonhole. He claimed that the pearl in his tiepin had once belonged to John Keats.

When first I had met Oscar, four and half years before, at the end of August 1889, at this same London hotel—the Langham in Portland Place—he was already famous, though known more for his flamboyance and wit than for his short stories and his poetry. He was rising thirty-five then and I had just turned thirty. I had published the first of my Sherlock Holmes stories, but was relatively unknown still and earning my keep, inadequately, practising as a doctor in Southsea.

At that first encounter—over a convivial dinner hosted by an American publisher who, happily, commissioned stories from us both—I was awed by Oscar’s intelligence and captivated by his personality. His charm was irresistible. His conversation left an indelible impression upon my mind. Intellectually, he towered above us all, and yet he had the art of seeming to be interested in all that we had to say. He took as well as gave, but what he gave was unique. He had a curious precision of statement, a delicate flavour of humour, and a trick of small gestures to illustrate his meaning, which were peculiar to himself We became friends—at once. And remained friends. And, while we did not see one another regularly, whenever we met there was always an easy and immediate intimacy between us.

Oscar Wilde portrait Mystery Tribune
Oscar Wilde

That said, as the years had passed Oscar had changed. The gentlemanly delicacy that I remembered from the late summer of 1889 was less evident in 1894. He was as witty as ever (possibly more so), but louder and, it seemed to me, less mindful of others. He gave more, but he took less. There was an aroma of wine and tobacco about him now. His dress was possibly more sober than when we had first met, but his way of life was not. He had become successful as a dramatist. (His play, A Woman of No Importance, had just opened in New York.) He had become wildly extravagant. (The Perrier-Jouet we were drinking was the costliest vintage.) As a husband and father, he had become neglectful of his obligations. There was a recklessness about him that was alarming. Being with him, you sensed danger in the air, and even a touch of madness.

But he was still wonderful company, still irresistible. That’s why I was there, at noon, on New Year’s Day.

‘And lunch?’ I enquired, pulling away my glass as he attempted to refill it. ‘You promised me “lunch and all the news”.’

‘I did,’ he said, filling his own champagne saucer to the brim. ‘And I trust you’ll not be disappointed by either. I’ve ordered potted shrimps and broiled lobster. The chef here is very good and he’s conjuring up a special mayonnaise.’

‘Lobster mayonnaise in January?’

‘It’s to be a picnic.’

‘A picnic?’ I repeated doubtfully.

‘Yes, Arthur, I know you’re a lamb-cutlets-on-a-Monday sort of man, but needs must. We’ll be eating on the move. But, fear not, we won’t go hungry.’ Smiling, he stepped from the fireplace to a side table by the window and picked up a small, dark, glass container. ‘Look. Russian caviar, the best beluga—as enjoyed by Tsar Alexander III and the more intimate friends of Oscar Wilde.’

‘A picnic?’ I said again. ‘In this weather?’

He glanced out of the window. The rain was falling steadily. ‘We’ll be under cover,’ he said soothingly. I’ve ordered a four­wheeler—with rugs.’ He looked below. ‘It’s waiting for us.’ He turned to me and laughed. ‘Where’s your spirit of adventure, Arthur?’

I laughed, too. ‘What’s all this about, Oscar? What’s going on?’

‘I’ll tell you.’ He pointed to the clock on the mantelpiece. ‘In a minute’s time, I anticipate a knock on the door. It will be one of the hotel bellboys—Jimmy, most likely—an amusing lad, cockney and good-hearted. He will be carrying a small silver salver in his right hand and on the salver will be a telegram addressed to me.’

‘And what will this telegram say? “Fly at once—all is discovered”?’

‘Very droll, Arthur. It will say, “Come at once”, or rather, “Come at two o’clock. Bring friend Doyle if you can. He should prove invaluable.” Signed, “Macnaghten.” I shall then give Jimmy sixpence, which he will most probably drop, and we will be on our way.’

‘How do you know the boy will drop the sixpence?’

‘He is very clumsy.’

‘And how do you know what the telegram will say?’

Oscar narrowed his eyes and drained his glass. ‘I have my methods, Dr Doyle.’

Arthur Conan Doyle Portrait
Arthur Conan Doyle Portrait

As my friend carefully placed his empty champagne saucer back on the mantelpiece, there came a double-knock on the door. ‘Enter!’ cried Oscar. A red-haired, freckle-faced boy of about thirteen years of age came into the room. He was indeed holding a small salver in his right hand.

‘Telegram for you, Mr Wilde.’

‘Happy New Year, Jimmy,’ said Oscar. ‘You may give the telegram to Dr Conan Doyle. Have you heard of him, Jimmy?’

‘Who, sir?’

‘Dr Conan Doyle.’

‘No, sir.’

‘Have you heard of Sherlock Holmes, Jimmy?’

‘Course, sir. Who hasn’t?’

‘Dr Conan Doyle invented Sherlock Holmes, Jimmy. Sherlock Holmes is a figment of Dr Doyle’s imagination.’

‘Pleased to meet you, sir,’ said the boy, holding the silver salver before me.

‘”Honoured to meet you” is what you mean, Jimmy. Take the telegram, Arthur. And you, Jimmy, take this.’ Oscar gave the lad a silver sixpence and the boy dropped it immediately. It rolled under the side table. ‘Retrieve your sixpence, Jimmy, and go!’

The bellboy did as he was told—with some alacrity—and Oscar chuckled happily. ‘Now, Arthur,’ he continued, ‘open the telegram. What does it say?’

“‘Come at two o’clock. Bring friend Doyle if you can. Macnaghten.”‘

‘Is that all?’

‘Yes,’ I said, smiling and holding up the telegram for my friend to inspect. ‘There appears to be no mention of my contribution proving “invaluable”.’

‘I apologise,’ he said, taking the telegram from me and scrutinising it with hooded eyes. ‘Macnaghten’s a policeman. I suppose one can’t expect too much.’ He dropped the telegram on the side table, picked up the jar of caviar and looked out of the window and down into the street. ‘Come, Arthur, our carriage awaits. We must be on our way. As you’d have it: the game’s afoot.’

Our four-wheeler lurched out of the Langham’s ornate portico and turned south into Regent Street. With a schoolboy’s glee, as though it were a tuck box, Oscar opened the picnic basket that the hotel porter had placed on the banquette between us. He handed me a large linen napkin and a china dish.

‘The toast is warm!’ he exclaimed delightedly, scooping a spoonful of caviar onto a piece of it. ‘Eat up, Arthur. We’ll be there in forty minutes, even in this weather.’

‘Where are we going?’ I asked.

‘Tite Street.’

‘Tite Street, Chelsea?’ I said, surprised. ‘Tite Street—where you live?’

‘Yes, Tite Street where I live —when I am at home.’

‘And you are not at home at present?’

‘No. As you see, I am staying at the Langham for a while. The hotel is full of strangers and foreigners. There’s nothing more comforting.’

I raised an eyebrow. ‘Does Mrs Wilde know where you are staying?’ It was a question I felt I knew him well enough to ask.

‘Of course. I keep nothing from Constance. No man should keep a secret from his wife. She invariably finds it out.’ He sucked noisily on a lobster claw. ‘Besides, I was at home for Christmas and it’s well known that too much domesticity is debilitating. It ages one rapidly and distracts one’s mind from higher things.’

I laughed, as he hoped I would. ‘How was Christmas? How are your boys?’

‘Christmas was charming in its way.’ He looked at me directly and there were tears once more in his eyes. ‘The Christmas story is so lovely, but how can one enjoy it when one knows how it will end? Is there to be a crucifixion in all our lives?’

‘And the boys?’ I said again, not feeling there was anything to be gained by prolonging another of my friend’s increasingly frequent maudlin moments.

‘The boys are well, thank you. But exhausting. Now they’re seven and eight they lead such active lives I don’t like to get in their way. The truth is, fathers should be neither seen nor heard. That is the proper basis for family life.’

I wondered if he might enquire after my wife and small ones, but he did not. ‘Christmas was good,’ he murmured, ‘or, at least, untroubled.’ He peered inside the picnic basket and pulled out a silver flask. ‘Do you think this might contain a passable white Burgundy?’ He undid the stopper and sniffed. ‘It does!’ He filled a small beaker and handed it to me. ‘Happy New Year, Arthur. Thank you for answering my summons.’

‘I am always pleased to see you,’ I said truthfully, raising my beaker to my friend. The carriage juddered to a halt. We had reached Piccadilly Circus. Even on New Year’s Day, at lunchtime in the rain, street girls were gathered in small clusters plying their trade. One looked up at me waving a handful of lavender in my direction and called out, ‘Happy New Year, guvn’r.’ The four-wheeler jolted forward and rumbled on.

‘I take it Lord Alfred Douglas is away,’ I said lightly.

‘I have been very worried about Bosie, Arthur. He has so much promise, but it’s going nowhere. He does nothing. His life seems aimless, unhappy, absurd.’

‘Yes, Bosie is in Egypt. He’s spending the winter working as private secretary to the consul-general in Cairo. The sun will be bad for his complexion, but the work will be good for his soul.’ Oscar leaned towards me and tapped me gently on the knee. ‘You must call him Bosie, you know. Everybody does. He likes you very much, Arthur, even though you don’t like him.’

‘I don’t dislike him,’ I said. ‘I don’t really know him, that’s all.’ In truth, I felt I knew enough of him not to trust him. Bosie Douglas was a young man of twenty-three, fair-haired, thin­lipped, good-looking (in a very English, weak sort of way), the third son of the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, a spoilt child, a mother’s favourite, a self-styled poet, a young idler who had left Oxford without taking a degree: effete, effeminate, ineffectual—and, in my estimation, a ruinous distraction for Oscar who was infatuated with the boy and lavished time, attention and money on him to a degree that was embarrassing. Certainly I would not have been embarking on this adventure with Oscar now had Bosie been in town. When Lord Alfred Douglas whistled, Oscar Wilde would drop everything to run to his side.

‘I have been very worried about Bosie, Arthur. He has so much promise, but it’s going nowhere. He does nothing. His life seems aimless, unhappy, absurd.’

I helped myself to a spoonful of caviar and glanced out of the carriage window. We were moving south through Trafalgar Square.

Oscar continued earnestly: ‘I gave him my French play to translate last year. Salome. I thought the story would appeal to his fascination with the sacred and the macabre.’

‘And did it?’ I asked.

‘Oh, yes, very much so. He produced a fine translation, but that was months ago. And since then, he’s done nothing. Nothing at all. And empty days lead to sleepless nights, with his health suffering terribly in consequence. He’s become nervous – almost hysterical.’

‘It’s a phase,’ I said. ‘He’s very young. He’ll grow out of it.’

‘Or kill himself.’

‘Now who’s getting hysterical?’ I asked.

‘Suicide runs in families, Arthur. Bosie’s grandfather took his own life, you know—shot himself. And his uncle cut his own throat—with a butcher’s knife.’

‘I thought his uncle was a clergyman.’

‘That’s another uncle—Lord Archie Douglas. Lord James Douglas is the one who cut his own throat—only a year or so ago. He was in love with his twin sister, Florrie, and when she got married it broke his heart and he went off the rails. He tried to abduct a young girl as a sister-substitute, but that went awry, to put it mildly, so he turned to drink and eventually he killed himself.’

‘They’re an odd family,’ I said, not knowing quite what else to say.

‘Anyway, with my encouragement, and his mother’s, Bosie’s gone to Cairo to work for Lord Cromer. The change of scene, and proper employment, will do him good, I trust.’

‘I trust so, too,’ I said, without much conviction, adding, with somewhat more sincerity, ‘And now Bosie’s away, you’re free to get on with some work of your own.’

‘Precisely,’ Oscar answered eagerly. ‘And that’s what I plan to do—what I need to do, in fact.’ We had reached the Thames Embankment and Oscar, looking out of the carriage window and up at the sky, while dramatically waving a forkful of potted shrimp towards the river, suddenly declared: ‘I am overwhelmed by the wings of vulture creditors, Arthur. I need money. I am hopelessly in debt.’

‘But you’ve had two plays in town this year,’ I protested. ‘You’ve made a fortune.’

‘And spent one.’ He looked at me and smiled. ‘Without regret. Pleasure will be paid for. And pleasure must be had. An inordinate passion for pleasure is the secret of remaining young.’

‘As I’ve heard you say before.’

He offered up a theatrical sigh. ‘You see what I am reduced to, Arthur? Repeating my own lines! I need to buy time to create some new turns of phrase. It’s very difficult to be original when one is in debt.’

‘And you have a plan?’ I suggested.

‘I do.’

‘And it involves me?’ I asked.

‘It does.’

‘And Mr Macnaghten?’

‘And Chief Constable Macnaghten—yes, indeed. Macnaghten is to lead us to our crock of gold, Arthur.’

‘The chief constable is a neighbour of yours? Tite Street is an unusual address for a policeman.’

‘Macnaghten is an unusual policeman. He’s intelligent. He’s cultivated. He’s educated.’

I laughed. ‘Does that mean he was at Oxford with you?’

‘No, he went to Eton—that’s a start. And then he went to India to manage his father’s tea estates in Bengal.’

‘He’s a planter turned policeman—that’s a curious kind of career development.’

‘He’s a polymath, with private means. He could do anything. Apparently, he was spotted by a district judge in Bengal who recognised his potential and when Macnaghten decided to come back to England with a view to being of some service to his country, the good judge pointed him in the direction of the Criminal Investigation Department of the Metropolitan Police. He’s now their Chief Constable- and only just turned forty.’

‘Is he a family man?’ I asked, fearing for a moment that Macnaghten might turn out to be one of Oscar’s good-looking enthusiasms suddenly brought into play because of the absence of Lord Alfred Douglas.

‘A family man? Very much so. He has fourteen brothers and sisters.’

‘And isn’t in love with any of them, I hope?’

Oscar giggled. ‘He is happily married to a very pretty girl called Dora, the daughter of a canon of Chichester, and I believe they have several small and no doubt delightful children. The family is a model of respectability.’

‘You like him?’

‘I think I do.’

‘And trust him?’

‘Absolutely. He has a walrus moustache, Arthur, to rival your own.’

‘And this Chief Constable Macnaghten is to help us make our fortune?’

‘Correct, my dear friend. You’re as sharp as Sherlock Holmes today. I need money and you need money.’ He looked at me slyly, his mouth half full of potted shrimp. ‘You have a poorly young wife at a nursing home in Switzerland, do you not? She requires care and attention, I’m sure—and that comes at a price.’ He took a sip of wine and smiled at me solicitously. ‘How is Touie, by the way?’

‘She is bearing up, thank you—and asks to be remembered to you. And to Constance.’

‘And you have children, don ‘t you, one of each?’

‘Yes, ‘ I said, smiling. ‘Mary and Kingsley. Well remembered.’

‘And they need nursemaids—and education. Obviously nothing that is worth knowing can be taught, but, even so, schools must be found and paid for. You could bring in more money by writing another of your Sherlock Holmes stories, but you appear disinclined to do so . . .’

‘I’ve had enough of Holmes.’

‘Very good. But you still need an income.’

‘Indeed.’

‘Exactly. I reckon you need a story that will outsell all that you have done before – and I need a play that will draw the town.’

‘And somehow your Chief Constable Macnaghten can supply us with both? ‘

‘I believe so, ‘ murmured my friend, almost purring with pleasure at the prospect.

‘And how exactly, Oscar, will he do that? ‘

‘By the simple expedient of helping us to identify the most celebrated, the most vile, the most notorious, the most repugnant, the most popular criminal of the age—Jack the Ripper. Was there ever a more promising start to a new year?’

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