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Wesley Stace | Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer (Picador)

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It’s a mystery of both literary and historical proportions.



I don’t generally read books like this; I like characters I can relate to, see myself knowing. Turn-of-the-century British composers? A formal and stilted world of men and the high-falutin circles in which they ran? Maybe not so much.
What first caused me to pick up the book (aside from the odd, awkward title) were the press quotes. “A tremendously imaginative novel that’s really several novels in one, for beneath its sparkling surface there are some very murky depths,” said one. “This is one of the few novels I have read that is truly musical. Wesley Stace is a brilliant and intensely original writer and this is his most unusual book yet,” said another.
What kept me from putting down the book was reading the author bio, and learning that Wesley Stace had an alter ego: musician John Wesley Harding.
What kept me reading was, I’ll be honest, a great bit of determination. There were many times I wanted to put it aside, pick up something more contemporary, more my style. Yet somehow, for some reason, I plodded on. I guess I wanted to see what “genius” looked like. Upon completing the novel, I’m not sure I truly saw the genius—but I’m willing to give Stace the benefit of the doubt. Others see it; maybe I’m just not the right audience.
All that aside, let me tell you a bit about the book. It was well written, and seemed to fully capture the burgeoning world of music journalism. It begins with a news report: promising young composer Charles Jessold has killed his wife and her lover, and then himself. Next is a statement by Leslie Shepherd, music critic and former friend of Jessold, as a preface to what follows: his recounting of his relationship with Jessold, and the events that occurred thereunder.
The book is, oddly, divided into two parts: one a straightforward, chronological account of Shepherd’s and Jessold’s years-long relationship, from the time of their meeting to the time of the latter’s death. And then, there is what follows: Present-day Shepherd, alone following the death of his wife. Struck with tinnitus and forced to abandon his profession, the former critic moves out of the city into a more remote area.
Here the novel alternates between what has become Shepherd’s largely uneventful life. An unexpected meeting leads Shepherd to again consider the life of his dead friend—specifically, how it intersected with the lives of him and his late wife. And here, as the say, the plot thickens. Through the retelling of the tale, we get a more behind-the-scenes look at Jessold’s life. Yes, you will be surprised. And then you will be surprised further.
The book offers much in the way of music discussion, composition and critique, making it instantly appealing to those with a classical appreciation of the art. It’s also a mystery of both literary and historical proportions. In an afterward, Stace admits drawing inspiration from another composer, Carlo Gesualdo, whose story—double murder, followed by suicide—so neatly parallels that of Jessold. The man certainly knows his subject, and for that, Bravo, Mr. Stace. | Laura Hamlett


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