Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer by Wesley Stace

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Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer by Wesley Stace

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A composer's murder-suicide provides the premise for a look back at his life and much fun-poking at the world of classical music and opera in England before, during and just after the Great War. Comparisons with Wodehouse are overstated and much of the humour will pass you by unless you understand the pretensions of the milieu. Hard, unrewarding, work.
Buy? Maybe not Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 352 Date: July 2011
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099546573

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Nothing in recent fiction prepared me for the power and the polish of this subtle tale of English music in the making, a chiller wrapped in an enigma [New Statesman]

His handling of dry comic dialogue and cynical affectation is reminiscent of P G Wodehouse… an intelligent, fun and thoughtful piece of fiction [Independent on Sunday]

Just two of the previous reviews that adorn the back cover of Charles Jessold…

I rarely start my own reviews by quoting those who have gone before me. I do so in this case because the remaining selections adorning the jacket include words like brilliant and intensely original, erudite, sparkling surface… murky depths, quick witted and clever.

Well, I'll allow clever.

My slowly revealed point is that I have to disagree. I found Stace's book hard work, slow, and ultimately not really worth the effort. Don't dash off! I have to put this in context.

It may be that the fault is all my own. I do not profess to be a music lover. I have not studied music. I rarely listen to classical music and, frankly, cannot abide opera. I can barely recognise Beethoven from Prokoviev. In my world Brahms and Liszt would as often have the alternative connotation as refer to composers of great repute. I know that the Rite of Spring caused a riot, but haven't the faintest idea why. Talk of the "warm embrace of the full chromatic spectrum" is not something I can put into a musical context. I fail to understand how music can be "shocking"… to me it is powerful, or pleasant, or joyful, or fun, or tear-jerking or sad (or creative of any number of any other emotion-inducing effects) … or just plain bad. Shock? No. Sorry. Does not compute.

Don't get me wrong. Classical music is not my auditory relaxation of choice, but there are pieces that I can appreciate on the superficial "response" level. I couldn't analyse them though and wouldn't want to.

All of this means that – let's be honest – much of Stace's sparkle and wit went right over my head. I'm sure there are hundreds of buried jokes that I simply did not get.

My take on "the world of art" in the broadest sense of that expression is such that I'd be hard put to know what was satirical representation and what a true reflection. The snootiness and pretension that exists for real are not exaggerated sufficiently in the novel to be overtly intended to be funny. Comparisons with Wodehouse are, in that regard, generous to say the least.

The book opens with a newspaper article dated June 1923 announcing that a composer has killed his wife, another and then himself. The composer is the eponymous Jessold. The other is, perhaps, his wife's lover, though this is by no means certain.

The article concludes that the paper's newspaper critic was witness to some of the events and was a personal friend and one-time collaborator of the composer.

Then we are handed over to said music critic, the narrator of all that follows: Leslie Shepherd.

Shepherd takes us back to the beginning; back to his first meeting with Jessold at a country-house-party in 1910. The purpose of the house-party is a fishing trip. Not for fish, but for English folk music, which even then was recognised as being on the decline. Participants would head off in pairs during the day to seek out locals who still sang the traditional songs as a matter of course and attempt to transcribe them.

In Wodehouse, this pursuit could have produced hilarity. In Stace, it almost seems like a realistic and noble endeavour. I don't smile at these chaps on their bicycles thinking that taking a rabbit for the pot to a village cottage in exchange for a song is a daft notion. I kind of wish it happened. Maybe it did. It doesn't so much mock the notions of the chattering classes for me, but has more of Hardy-esque respect for traditions being lost and attempts (however misguided) to preserve them.

On the first evening Shepherd tells what one gathers is a favourite tale of his: that of Gesauldo, Prince of Venosa, who killed his wife and lover. This apparently is a true story. The prince having acted in accordance with customs at the time, was acquitted of any wrong-doing, murder being an appropriate response to adultery (they thought) and went on to live into old age.

This tale is co-incidentally reflected in the song "Little Musgrave" that Jessold and Shepherd catch on their fishing expedition. The song tells of another cuckolded husband who reacts with the ultimate violence.

The similarities of the two stories inspires the young Jessold. At the time he is too young to make proper use of the operatic themes, but he will. In the meantime, he produces shorter works all on themes of English life and times of the era. The Soda Syphon Symphony is again something one might expect a Wooster to play, but again – for me – failed to elicit a smile. The Shandyisms have humour at their construct, but on the page it's lost.

Shepherd proceeds to tell us the whole life story. He follows Jessold's development as musician; his stay in a German internment camp for the duration of the Great War, his return in triumph to the English music scene; his decline into anger and alcoholism and his ultimate end.

Obviously, all is not as it seems and the ending is a twist that, though one half-expects something, is not entirely anticipated.

If one were to reduce the plot to the story-board, it isn't a bad idea. Unfortunately, in the execution I couldn't figure out whether the book wanted to be taken seriously as a murder mystery (which fails for lack of clues and detection), a thriller (which fails for lack of twists and suspense) or a romp (which will fail for most readers on the grounds of being simply too intellectual). On every level it fails on the grounds of ponderous delivery. The occasional picturesque turn of phrase is overwhelmed by incessant name-dropping, overly intrusive musical analysis and a deadeningly slow pace.

For the musically inclined with the relevant mindset for the humour, I can see its appeal. I have one friend who I'm sure will find great delight in it. For me, and I suspect most general readers, it simply doesn't work.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Go on - you know that you want to have a look at a Wodehouse, just to compare...

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