Wesley Stace’s novel Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer (Picador, 2011, US Amazon page here) is a clever mystery set in the world of early twentieth-century British music. The narrator, conservative gentlemanly music critic Leslie Shepherd, befriends young composer Charles Jessold and accompanies or watches him through folk song collection, World War I, and further career development, culminating in the composition of an opera based on the English folk ballad Little Musgrave, which sounds like a combination of Tristan and Wozzeck. Jessold goes from promise to alcoholic ruin, and as the title suggests, his story ends badly, in a situation paralleling the deadly love triangle of Renaissance mad genius Carlo Gesauldo. We go through the story twice. Naturally, the first version leaves out some key details.
I really wanted to like this book. The historical background of English music between around 1910 and 1925 is fascinating and well researched, even if you don’t care for the oft-denigrated “cowpat music” of Holst and Vaughan Williams.* The description of the music itself is unusually convincing. But I enjoyed the first 100 pages of exposition the most. The mystery is unveiled ingeniously over the course of the rest of the book (though I did figure it out around two-thirds of the way through), but there is progressively less plot relative to the amount of conceptual ruminating. The actual events are only vaguely sketched in places. This wouldn’t have been such an issue had I not quickly tired of Shepherd’s omnipresent, self-consciously wry, would-be Wodehousian narrative voice, which infects the tone of the whole book (“A countertenor?… I thought it would be beautiful and unique. Or eunuch.” [emphasis original]). None of the characters are very sympathetic, and the only ones with three dimensions are Shepherd and Jessold; Shepherd’s wife Miriam assumes great importance in the second half of the novel, but never is more than an enigma.
While Shepherd’s inability to see Jessold’s life except in the model of his or others’ works is ultimately deceptive, the constant harping on these parallels (oh, Jessold is Peter Grimes as well? and Ulysses?) gives the book a smoke and mirrors quality. It is all Easter eggs (“the critic Ross” is definitely Alex, and did we just run into Adrian Leverkühn, shorn of his umlaut? of course we did) and short on gravitas and emotional weight. In the end, its cleverness makes it more smug than involving.
Next in Books, I’ll consider Matthew Gallaway’s new novel The Metropolis Case, which I’ve only just started but like a lot so far. Next in Performances, well, hopefully I’ll get to something soon. I survived the hurricane, but getting around is still a hassle.
*I don’t know much about this subject but I did catch a few mistakes, such as his unlikely familiarity with Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria in the 1910s. More numerous are the anachronisms in language and idiom–“cowpat music” wasn’t coined until the 1950’s, for example–but these may have been intentional.