Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murdererby Wesley Stace
One of The Wall Street Journal's Best fiction books of 2011
England, 1923. A gentleman critic named Leslie Shepherd tells the macabre story of a gifted young composer, Charles Jessold. On the eve of his revolutionary new opera's premiere, Jessold murders his wife and her lover, and then commits suicide in a scenario that strangely echoes the plot of his/i>… See more details below
One of The Wall Street Journal's Best fiction books of 2011
England, 1923. A gentleman critic named Leslie Shepherd tells the macabre story of a gifted young composer, Charles Jessold. On the eve of his revolutionary new opera's premiere, Jessold murders his wife and her lover, and then commits suicide in a scenario that strangely echoes the plot of his opera---which Shepherd has helped to write. The opera will never be performed.
Shepherd first shares his police testimony, then recalls his relationship with Jessold in his role as critic, biographer, and friend. And with each retelling of the story, significant new details cast light on the identity of the real victim in Jessold's tragedy.
This ambitiously intricate novel is set against a turbulent moment in music history, when atonal sounds first reverberated through the concert halls of Europe, just as the continent readied itself for war. What if Jessold's opera was not only a betrayal of Shepherd, but of England as well?
Wesley Stace has crafted a dazzling story of counter-melodies and counter-narratives that will keep you guessing to the end.
Nabokovian cunning distinguishes this energetic third novel from the British-born author of well-received historical fiction (by George, 2007, etc.), who leads another artistic life as popular singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding.
An homage to the Russian-American master appears in the figure of the narrator, musicologist-critic Leslie Shepherd, whose fussy mentoring of the eponymous 20th-century composer CharlesJessold echoes the parasitic devotion of narrator Charles Kinbote to elusive genius John Shade, in Nabokov's ineffably intricate novelPale Fire. Shepherd is likewise a narrator; in fact, he's two of them, as Stace treats us to Shepherd's account, written for the police, of the crime referred to in the novel's title. For Jessold, on the eve of the premiere of his opera Little Musgrave (based on a lurid folk tale), killed his wife and her lover, then took his own life—essentially repeating the notorious act of his near-namesake, Italian Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo (a real historical figure). Then, after reporting thus to the proper authorities, Shepherd undertakes a second narrative, revealing What Really Happened. Suspense is cleverly maintained throughout, and a wealth of detail about the 20th-century folk-music revival in England is nicely contrasted with the rise of modernist music, anathema itself to the fastidious Shepherd (a stuffy comic character whom P.G. Wodehouse might have been proud to create). Stace knows all these territories intimately and peppers the narrative with guest appearances by historical composers (e.g., Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arnold Schkenberg), even offering a glimpse of a fictional one: Adrian Leverkuhn, the antihero of Thomas Mann'sDoctor Faustus. This yeasty tale can perhaps be faulted for a few too many lame jokes and a surfeit of ostentatious wordplay. But it dances at a sprightly pace, and few readers will regret being told the same tale twice, especially when it's as frisky and entertaining as this one/these two.
Stace's versatility makes this one just about irresistible.
The Washington Post
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Read an Excerpt
I met Charles Jessold, the murderer, on 21 May 1910, the day after
King Edward’s funeral. We were guests at a Hatton Manor
Saturday-to-Monday, and it was on that very fi rst eve ning that I
had occasion to tell of Carlo Gesualdo, the composer whose story
made such a lasting impression.
I had just entered the room, a quick inventory of which revealed:
three composers (one of note, two of naught), a conductor,
and a miscellany of vicars, musical scholars and enthusiasts; not to
mention Cedric Mount (our most esteemed member) and of course
Antic Jackson who, despite arriving on the same late train from
town, had managed to beat me downstairs. I was, as ever, the token
The only stranger was a young man standing over the piano. In
impeccably creased grey flannels and gaudily striped tie, he was our
junior by some years. His face, a pick-and-mix assortment, conformed
to no classical ideal. His forehead was too broad and his
lips too mean for his fleshy cheeks, although the ever-glimmering
smile at their left corner gave an impression of geniality. His thick
black hair was slicked lavishly with pomade.
His eyes, later described as devilish, were nothing of the kind;
rather they were beady, though being a lucid emerald green, not
unattractively so. In conversation, they spoke directly to you, a
somewhat unnerving compliment that turned a stranger into a
confi dant whether he cared to be or not. When it was his turn to
listen, those eyes never strayed from yours. To avoid his gaze, one
sought refuge in the perfectly straight line from the top of his nose
to the cusp of the chin that he was later to disguise with a goatee
(interpreted as Mephistophelean, of course). Above his eyes, that pale
billboard of forehead advertised his every fl icker of emotion.
This newcomer leaned in rapt attention, back arched to a stylised
forty- five degrees, his elbow on the lid of the piano, hand to
his chin, thumb tucked under: a remarkably self-conscious pose. I
found myself wondering whether he was perhaps used to being
observed. He certainly ‘lit up’ a room. Any producer worth his salt
would have plucked him from a crowd.
I realised that someone was playing the piano only when he
stopped. The pianist, Mark Wallington, rose and with a sweep of
the hand surrendered his stool to the young man, whose mask of
deliberation disappeared into a broad smile that bared unruly
teeth dominated by handsomely vampirical incisors. He raised his
hands, as if to demonstrate that there was nothing up his sleeves,
and played what he had just heard to an astonishing degree of accuracy.
The performance, brought off with some relish, was
greeted by applause from a group by the fireside.
‘The arrangement and harmonisations to boot!’ proclaimed St
John Smith à la ringmaster. ‘Will anyone else try to stump him?’
The young man bowed. Not so self-conscious after all; just youthful,
serious, in the spotlight.
I called casually to our host, the fifteenth Viscount Hatton, who
met my eyes with a raised finger implying that I was far more interesting
than what ever minor obstacles stood in his path. He was
known as ‘Sandy’ for his sun-freckled, desert complexion, though
all he knew of the Sahara was a bunker at Sunningdale.
‘You’re like a German verb, Leslie,’ he said when he finally materialised.
A calculated insult. ‘Always last.’
‘But just on time, and like a French adjective, agreeable.’ I
waved a vague finger towards the young man: ‘Who’s the performing
‘Can he balance a red ball on his nose?’
‘Probably.’ Sandy surveyed his domain with satisfaction. Jackson
and I were the last pieces in his weekend’s jigsaw. ‘A pleasure,
Leslie.’ I bowed. ‘Ah,’ he said with an approving smile at the cabal
in question. ‘A reprise of the star turn.’
Again a somewhat tuneless original was rendered; again the
young man duplicated it, as though the first player had printed a
piano roll and he merely pedalled it through. It seemed the Memory
Man had reached the climax of his act.
‘I didn’t know there was to be a music-hall turn in addition to
our fishing expedition,’ I said pianissimo as we broadcast smiles
‘A mere trifle. The pièce de résistance is yet to come.’
‘Oh, I am disappointed.’
‘I believe he was something of an . . . infant prodigy.’ He savoured
the words for my benefit.
‘Played Three Blind Mice in all keys by the age of four? Wrote
his first sonata in utero?’
‘Very possibly. But his days of prodigiousness are done. He is
unhappily studying composition under Kemp at St Christopher’s,
Cambridge . . .’
Kemp’s was a name I was known to pooh-pooh at every opportunity,
so I instead indicated the wunderkind’s tie. ‘Are those Kit’s
‘No, I believe that may be the tie of . . .’ he paused for comic
effect . . . ‘the Four Towns Music Festival in Kent. There’s a
mother, I am told, to whom he is very loyal, and she has him work
as accompanist at that august provincial gala. Jessold may not
strictly be from the top drawer, dear Shepherd, but I saw a young
man of promise.’
‘You invited him.’ I thought we had been speaking of an interloper,
an extraneous other making up numbers in the back of someone’s
Bentley. Sandy waved away my apology.
‘He is going down this year, and when Kemp asked me to speak
to the University Madrigal Society I unavoidably met Jessold, its
president.’ The keen madrigalist was currently attacking a bit of
ragtime with venom, pounding the keys into submission.
‘What’s he got against the piano?’
‘His touch is a little agricultural, probably years of banging out
“Poor Wandering One” for the daughters of the local clergy, but
then Jessold has no pretensions to be a concert pianist.’
‘Eureka! He has pretensions to be a composer?’
‘He angled for an invitation to mingle with the great and the
‘Far from it. Kemp can’t speak highly enough of him. So I con-
vinced Jessold that the one that got away was lurking here in the
Lower Thames. And lo! There he sits! The very image of the
young composer, earnestly ingratiating himself to the crowd as a
child seeks to please his parents. He’ll get over that. I have yet to
hear any work.’
St John extricated himself from the knot around the piano.
‘Racket rather sets my teeth on edge,’ he said with a grimace. ‘It’s
so desperately jaunty. Youth must, I dare say.’
Sandy slipped off his signet ring, tinkling the side of his champagne
fl ute. Glasses of Oeil de Perdrix were raised towards him in
toast. ‘Hatton welcomes you. I welcome you. Tomorrow we work;
to night we play. But first, I know Jessold, new of this parish, has
been diverting some of you. We’ll let the boy take a breather . . .
but I’d like to make him sing once more for his supper. Freddie, to
Fat Frederic Desalles was so cruelly camouflaged by his jacket
that his head appeared to be peeking from behind the cushions
of the sofa. He struggled to attention and made his way to the piano.
We held our breath nervously on the stool’s behalf. Landing
‘I am here.’ He played a little something that he intended us to
imagine effortlessly thrown off, but even this little doodle bore the
tragic hallmarks of his many other failures. Some thought Freddie’s
sole qualifications to be a composer were that he believed in
God and his name sounded foreign; but he could Handel a religious
theme as well as any man in Britain. ‘At your service!’
‘Jessold, make yourself scarce,’ commanded Sandy.
The butler escorted Jessold from the room. I looked at the young
man as he left; he glanced over his shoulder, catching me, as it were,
red-handed. A departing star knows there is always someone looking.
‘When they are at a suitable distance,’ Sandy continued, ‘I will
ask Freddie to play a melody, of say four or fi ve lines, unknown
to Jessold. Perhaps one you might like to improvise for us now,
maestro; perhaps a little something from your redoubtable
No one could doubt the size of Desalles’ arsenal. Drinks, pale
and pink, were replenished as he sketched his rough draft. It was
typically Desallesean (there is certainly no such word, nor ever
shall be): churchfully plain, easily ignored.
‘We shall now bring Jessold back into the room.’ Sandy tugged
the bell pull imperiously. ‘And you, Freddie, will play him the first
half of your melody. But no more than that.’
On his return, the young man again assumed that study of
trance-like meditation as he refined the music’s possibilities in his
mind. Desalles ended his rendition on a suspended D minor, an
appropriately haunting chord for this demonstration of Cecilian
clairvoyance. Jessold did not move. He was not yet ready.
‘Once more, Freddie, please,’ asked Sandy.
This time, when Desalles reached that inconclusive D, Jessold
took his place, played the first three lines, and elided effortlessly
into the next two, melodically twinned, if not identically harmonised,
with Frederic’s originals. We’ve all heard pieces where the composer’s
next thought was predictable (and Desalles was not the
most unconventional), but this was something quite apart. Jessold,
alert to every possible melodic path, had narrowed it down to one:
this one. It was more akin to the reduction of a mathematical
His final flourish was a plagal chord of amen that parodied Desalles’
Messiah complex. No one clapped more enthusiastically than
Freddie himself. I willingly joined in, delighted that the boy had
none of the fear of self-expression endemic in those schooled in
composition. One marvelled at the strength of character that had
escaped unscathed from Kemp’s clutches!
‘Rather better than the prototype,’ I muttered.
‘Ask him how he does it,’ said Sandy as the bell rang for dinner.
The first toast was to the departed king; the second, to the new
George. I had feared that the funeral and its surrounding sea of
dark blue serge might spell the postponement of our weekend’s
pleasure, but our party was of sterner stuff.
My reward for years of uninterrupted friendship with our host
was a seat next to the man of the moment who boasted the unseasonable
glow of a cross-country runner on a freezing December
morning, with babyish skin that seemed ruddy with overly zealous
shaving. A tureen hovered to my left as a ghostly consommé, complete
with ectoplasm, was ladled into my bowl. I introduced myself
to Jessold by name.
‘Of The World?’ he asked without a semiquaver rest.
I nodded, flattered. ‘I know you only as Jessold.’
A smile, perhaps a little reptilian, slid across my face. ‘Charles
‘I hope you are not going to ask me if I am the Charles Jessold,
for I am almost certainly not.’ There was a forthrightness about
him: nothing ungracious or rudely done, but he spoke his mind. ‘I
am a composer, but I have yet to trouble the critics with anything
worth their ink.’
‘I look forward to the imposition. Does anyone remark on your
‘Never. Jessold is rare, apparently, almost extinct in Britain except
in parts of Suffolk.’
‘No. It is the two names in tandem . . . not merely Jessold.’ He
looked at me uncomprehending. ‘Together they put me in mind of
a composer. You have perhaps never heard of Carlo Gesualdo?’ His
expression did not change. ‘Being the president of a madrigal society,
and being a Charles Jessold, you ought.’
‘Well, I already feel an etymological kinship with him.’
‘Ha! Have a care, Jessold. His is not a name to take in vain.’
As I installed myself to tell Gesualdo’s remarkable story, I uttered
the composer’s name as a bold headline.
‘Carlo Gesualdo!’ hooted Forbes, our pet literarian, eavesdropping.
Forbes and I enjoyed a cantankerous relationship, taking
nothing personally: we were used to riding against one another.
‘Carlo Gesualdo! Beware of the Shepherd, young Jessold. Behind
his public face, that of an unassuming, if violently nationalist, musical
scribe, lurks a ridiculous antiquarian. Inky- fingered goeth he,
under a layer of dust, slicing through the musty cobwebs of our
musical history as he may.’ All good-natured, no doubt, but I did
not care to be the butt of his chaffi ng when I had such a story to
tell. I turned back to my food, mindful not to give an impression
of pique. On blundered Forbes, undaunted: ‘What ever made you
think of that ghoulish character, Shepherd? The vaguest coincidence
of two names? Please spare our young friend that Halloween
horror. At least while he’s eating.’
I had barely noticed the arrival of the chaud-froid, a Hatton favourite.
The promise of conversation had withered like Klingsor’s
garden so I took a momentary, dignified vow of silence, content to
postpone my revelations. Sandy had referred to Jessold’s promise. I
had scoffed, but I could feel it too.
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