Book review: Charles Jessold considered as a Murderer, by Wesley Stace

Set in years just before and after the the Great War, this novel is a book of narratives. It is the telling and the re-telling of the story of Charles Jessold, the story of a composer who, on the eve of the premier of his opera, ‘Little Musgrave’, murders his wife and her lover before turning the gun on himself. The plot of ‘Little Musgrave’ -- the ballad of Lord Barnard who murders his wife and her lover, the said Little Musgrave -- is only one odd coincidence. There are echoes of the story of Carlo Gesualdo -- almost an Italian version of the name Charles Jessold -- who also murdered his wife and her lover in Venosa, Italy in 1586 and later turned to writing music. All of this comes to light in the very early pages of the book. Perhaps disconcertingly so. The arch tone of the narrator coupled with the coincidences above, summoned a first reaction of “this is all too clever by half”. The first time the story is told is an account given to the police by the narrator, Leslie Shepherd, a music critic and friend of Jessold. The accepted version of events is predicated on Jessold’s alcoholism and “obsessive nature” but as the story unfolds in Shepherd’s re-telling, the story starts to take quite a different turn. The narratives of the book are the underpinng of the structure and these same narratives shift and evade. In the opera, the story of Little Musgrave undergoes an internal change of motives and consequences. Shepherd is to write the libretto, only to discover that an injured War poet is also writing for the piece. There are details about the Gesualdo murders that Shepherd promises to impart to Jessold at some point: that point never comes. Many years after the murders, a Grub Street journalist threatens to write the Jessold story as a lurid, sensationalist tabloid piece -- a narrative full of conjecture and error. This prompts Shepherd -- at the behest of his wife and of the Jessold family -- to write the true story. This true story is not at all what the family might have hoped for. Throughout the book there is much fascinating and erudite musical lore, from accounts of folksong collecting -- very much in vogue at the time -- to critical chit chat about the relative merits of various composers of the day. The prose is a joy to read, the story has many layers and resonances and I found my sympathies changing allegiance then reverting, then changing again. This is a satisfying and rich book and, much more than clever, it’s also a deeply intelligent one.
A couple of little footnotes to all of this. The author of the book, Wesley Stace, is better known as John Wesley Harding, under which name he has released at least fifteen albums. If you’d like to hear a really fine version of Little Musgrave, check out Youtube for Nic Jones or Planxty versions. The Planxty one is my favorite. (See video below!)I first came across Gesualdo in a book by Val McDermid -- ‘A Darker Domain’. Even though I love to cook, I avoid mystery novels with recipes: on the other hand I’m always pleased to take musical tips from writers such as McDermid or Peter Robinson.

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