Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, By Wesley Stace

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The Independent Culture

Simply put, but devilishly hard to achieve, a successful novel is one that lingers in the mind as fact. Put through their hoops, its characters acquire that plausibility which can have readers continuing the childhood habit of creating new adventures for them. With his third novel, Wesley Stace again turns a variant on all this - so much so that, for a moment, at the first performance of Britten's opera Peter Grimes, one finds oneself wondering whether the composer had copped some of that landmark music from Charles Jessold, whose work had been eclipsed by a fatal 1920s love triangle.

Jessold - his very name adapted from that of murderous musician Carlo Gesualdo - is Stace's own creation. As with his previous novel, by George, which riffed upon Candice Bergen's ventriloquist father, Stace has settled his creation in a sedulously observed world. This time its troubled dynamic is the relationship between the composer and a critic, Leslie Shepherd.

Affronted by matters Teutonic, Shepherd plays a part in that rediscovery of folk song which steered so much of English music in the years before the Great War ("cowpat composers", as Jessold sums up the pastoral school). For a while, the critic looks set to provide the libretto for Jessold's opera, inspired by the terrible events in one such ballad.

All is turned upside down by new styles of music, including that of Schoenberg (whose wife's lover killed himself in a particuarly gruesome way) and the advent of war in 1914, in which a holiday lumbers Jessold with internment in Germany. This is but part of a plot which, told several times over, has all the trappings of melodrama. But gore is only a small part of it. Stace, himself a prolific composer, has a continual eye for detail and the telling aperçu, such as Vaughan Williams's thinking of sylvan landscapes while collecting body parts during wartime ambulance duty.

Stace can as readily describe the cover of a purported book about Gesualdo – "a treble clef that twisted into a shotgun" - as the rigours of septuagenarian shaving: "the razor no longer seems acquainted with the topography of my face". And if you begin to guess the twist, that does not dent a work which can at one moment echo Congreve, posit folk songs' endurance as a Darwinian survival of the fittest, and says of a character that her "vague delivery relied a caustic wit and a very pretty turn of phrase. She was like the 'C' tap in a French sink: if you didn't speak the language, you were in for a surprise". Stace's artistry makes our language a continual surprise.

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