Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, By Wesley Stace

A composer takes his life before his first opera opens

Doug Johnstone
Sunday 27 June 2010 00:00 BST

Wesley Stace has so far carved a distinctive niche for himself with two historical novels of superior skill and style; works that played with the conventions of the form. This latest offering is no different, the author using a historical framework to explore strange psychologies and unconventional relationships.

The subject matter this time is music. Stace is a pretty handy musician himself, performing folk tunes under the stage name John Wesley Harding, so it's perhaps no surprise he has finally tackled music in his fiction – but he has chosen to examine the world of English classical music at the start of the 20th century rather than his home turf.

The titular Charles Jessold is a promising and unpredictable young composer, and the book opens with a newspaper report of his scandalous death. According to the report, Jessold found his wife in a compromising situation with her vocal coach, poisoned them both then turned a gun on himself. All of this on the threshold of his greatest professional achievement, the opening of his debut opera, Little Musgrave. The opera is subsequently cancelled, not least because the plot bears an uncanny resemblance to real-life events. The rest of the novel is made up of the reminiscences of Leslie Shepherd, a music critic and long-time friend of Jessold's, who wrote the libretto for Little Musgrave.

The early part of these memoirs bristles along at a great lick, Stace's depiction of London in the early part of the 20th century springing to life. His handling of dry comic dialogue and cynical affectation is reminiscent of PG Wodehouse. As the novel continues, though, an ominous melancholy begins to seep into proceedings. Of course, we readers are already aware of Jessold's horrible end, adding pathos to even the most frivolous scenes. But as the relationship between Shepherd and Jessold changes from innocence to a more jaded outlook, and as Jessold's drink problems begin to worsen, an inevitable decline takes hold.

Stace uses this central relationship to look at some intriguing questions, such as the true relationship between musician and music critic. And he places his characters on a cusp, too. When we meet Jessold and Shepherd first, they are in rural England trying to track down ancient folk songs to use as material. Shepherd believes implicitly that this is the way forward for English classical music, and while Jessold initially agrees, his head is turned by the adventurous atonal experimentation of the likes of Arnold Schoenberg. As the two become more distant, Shepherd sees not only their friendship at risk, but the very future of music in his beloved country.

While Stace fills the narrative with delightful detail and a clear love and knowledge of his subject matter, there are one or two facets that don't quite come off as they could. In the latter part of the story, as Stace tries to ratchet up the murder-mystery element of the plot, there is a re-evaluation of the role of Shepherd's wife Miriam in the story. Unfortunately, Miriam has been so neglected on the page until this point that the sudden reliance on her seems a rather clumsy plot device. And the character of Jessold, so full of life yet driven to self-destruction, does veer rather too close to the cliché of the troubled artist at times. But these are minor quibbles in what is otherwise an intelligent, fun and thoughtful piece of fiction.

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