Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer – Book Review

I have always been rather admired as a raconteur. I like to inject drama into my tale and I am no stranger to exaggeration, to bending the truth so the story goes as it ought to. – from Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer, page 15 –

Leslie Shepherd, a British music critic, narrates the story of a young composer, Charles Jessold. Right from the beginning, the reader senses that the story may be more than it appears on the surface.

Wesley Stace’s latest novel opens with a 1923 news headline about the murder of Jessold’s wife and her lover,  followed by Jessold’s suicide. To add to the drama, the murders-suicide take place on the eve of Jessold’s long awaited opera Little Musgrave – an opera which explores infidelity followed by a jealousy-fueled murder and suicide. Leslie Shepherd, Jessold’s friend and confidante, has helped write the opera and may hold the key to unraveling the crime and its motivations.

I knew Jessold for thirteen years from 1910 until his death in 1923. yet for the final two years of his life, I saw him only rarely; and for four long years during his internment in the first war, not at all.

In his absence, I knew him well.

In his death, I knew him better than ever. – from Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer, page 213 –

Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer is a complex, twisty, very literary novel. Set in England, it explores in great detail a time in music history of which I was largely ignorant. The emergence of atonal music composition occurred right around the time the world was preparing for war. “Atonality” was described pejoratively as a condemnation of  music in which chords were organized seemingly with no apparent coherence. From the New World Encyclopedia:

Though atonality and the resulting dissonance which it often produces can provide certain expressive or atmospheric conditions in music, as a end unto itself (dissonance for dissonance’s sake) did not find favor with many composers until after World War II when serialist and formulaic methodologies began to hold sway in modern composition. Some composers were highly outspoken about the “soulless” aspect of atonal music.

Stace takes this controversial time in music history and wraps it around his story, weaving the ideas of change, atonality, and the threat of war together with the story of a young composer in the prime of his professional development. The dark undercurrents of impending war, the dissonance of the music – all play into the overarching plot of the book…that of jealousy and murder.

Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer is constructed like the musical score of an opera with an overture, followed by several acts that move the story forward. As Lesley Shepherd tells the story, it evolves and morphs and becomes something entirely different than what is expected.

[…] it is a strange, sane fact of life that often it is the unpredicted, unforeseen end that comes to pass. This should be most satisfactory for the novelist. However wild his imaginings, reality always has the capacity to outdo him.

The unexpected always happens. – from Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer, page 169 –

This is not your typical murder mystery. Stace takes his time setting up the scenes, fleshing out the players. The tension builds slowly. Piece by piece, the facts are uncovered – a bit like putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle where eventually the picture emerges from the chaos of a thousand parts. Because I do not have a background in music, I found the early part of this novel slow going. But, as the story came together, I found myself intrigued, unable to stop reading until the final piece to the puzzle had been chinked into place.

Wesley Stace has written a highly intellectual and complex novel that uses the atonal music of the protagonist Charles Jessold as a metaphor for the characters’ lives. Readers with an interest in music history and a love of literary novels will find this a fascinating book whose twists and turns lead to an unexpected resolution.


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  1. How interesting. I never realized there was controversy like that in the music world.

    • Wendy on February 20, 2011 at 15:55

    Kathy: It was new to me too!

    • zibilee on February 20, 2011 at 17:25

    I love Wesley Stace and really enjoyed his book Misfortune. He is a really talented author, and after reading your review of this book, I am eager to try it out for myself!

    • Wendy on February 25, 2011 at 09:54

    Heather: This was the first book I’d read by Stace – but it is good to know his other books are also great!

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