Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer
(Picador, 2011, 2011)
Wesley Stace’s Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer is an intricate, unabashedly literary and clever musical thriller. Stace’s third novel painstakingly examines the strange and turbulent bond between a composer and a critic in early 20th century England. It is also a testament to an even more turbulent and polarizing era in both music history and the trenches of Europe’s shattered continent.
Considered rehashes, through the eyes of gentleman critic Leslie Shepherd, the tragedy of up-and-coming composer Charles Jessold, who scandalizes 1923 London with a murder-suicide that is eerily similar to a 16th century crime committed by Carlo Gesualdo, “the mad prince of Vernosa,” another composer and one of Jessold’s musical influences. In the book’s first major section, “Charles Jessold, As I Knew Him,” Shepherd delivers his “official” account of his relationship to Jessold’s personal life and career, as well as the events leading up to the murders. “Post-Mortem,” the longer, more gripping second section, is set during the waning years of the lives of Shepherd and his wife, Miriam. It relates a stranger, more kaleidoscopic version of the famous catastrophe and its lingering psychological consequences,.
Despite a slow start, in which the reader is introduced to Shepherd’s many groan-worthy, upper-class affectations (he is an obnoxious narrator at times), the book eventually reaches the pace of an enjoyable thrill ride. Though told in first person, the storyline masterfully plays upon the reader’s sense of perception and unleashes a sequence of devastating twists, intricately woven layers that thicken even as they unravel. With a pitch-perfect ability to capture period dialogue and an uncanny knack for pacing, Stace has created characters that, ironically, blossom at the ends of their lives with revelatory verve. “Art is more important than my life,” Shepherd explains in “Ars Moriendi,” the crucial third, and last, act. This epitaph is not fully grasped until the book’s final wrenching page.
Perhaps Considered’s musical language seems so organic because the author’s alter-ego, guitarist and songwriter John Wesley Harding, is the influential noir folk pioneer who has recorded more than a dozen albums and opened shows for Bruce Springsteen. And while the novel is not autobiographical, Stace/Harding’s profound passion for music history and the research necessary to present nearly 50 years of it in a thorough and credible manner, is evident in every aspect of the text. The musical scene of the day and its various storylines—the wild, atonal experiments of Germans and Austrians like Schönberg versus the folk revival in pre-war England, the use of the phonograph as a viable (and sometimes despised) listening source—are vividly depicted. The often dense prose resonates with the calculated ebbs, thrusts, and nuanced crescendos of a major concerto. Jessold’s drunken mania and musical genius grapple with each other like a dissonant movement competing for earspace with a classical poetic melody, both of which the composer succeeds in creating during his short career. The cleverly conceived staccato bursts, in which Shepherd divulges each crucial, plot-changing bit of information, are tempered with the quiet interludes of Miriam’s covert erotic fixation with Jessold. The folk lyrics that eventually become “Little Musgrave,” Jessold’s ill-fated opera, are transcribed in their entirety, adding an authentic, almost singable element to the text.
For a historical novel, Considered is surprisingly lacking in concrete physical detail, only a minor annoyance given the strength of the narration. Shepherd’s voice provides more than enough intrigue, depth, and empathy in his multi-faceted protagonist. This is a man, defined by his frailties, fears, and insecurities, and this definition pushes us toward something utterly convincing, if not completely endearing. He comes off as a somewhat pretentious critic, possessed of a predictable bias for all that is blue-blooded, conservative, and fundamentally English. His interactions with his closest acquaintances are brusque, standoffish, even frigid, like his sexually-barren marriage. Yet, because we think we know so much about this man, due to the clarity of his voice, his ultimate role in the book’s central tragedy is all the more astonishing and unanticipated.
Stace has crafted an ambitious and erudite novel whose narrative misdirection conjures more than a hint of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, but with a style and a music all its own. It is a haunting ode to artistry at its peak, and a dark reminder of its occasional casualties, including the artist himself.