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Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer by…

Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer

by Wesley Stace

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I finished this book last night and I'm not sure yet how I felt about it. It definitely needs a little description first. The book is set in the classical musical world in England in the early 1900s. The main characters are Charles Jessold, a young composer, and Leslie Shepard, a music critic. These two are closely entwined, I'm not sure friends is the right word, though. The book is told completely from Shepard's point of view and he is not a reliable narrator, at least in the first half. He's also very pretentious and annoying and I basically hated the first half of the book. What happens is (and you find this out presented as a newspaper article on the first pages, so it isn't really a spoiler) Jessold murders his wife and her lover and then kills himself. The first half of the book is Shepard's telling of the events leading up to this for the police. The second half of the book is another retelling of the events written at the end of Shepard's life, but this time you find out that most of the first half of the book was lies.

I realized while reading the second half why I hated the narrator and book so much at the beginning - because he's lying and leaving out info to lead the police astray. But it's kind of hard to like a book when a whole half of it is so obnoxious. It's definitely growing on me the farther away from it I get, but I'm not sure I'd put it high on a recommendation list. One thing that I appreciated was that the writing about music and description of professional musicians was right on. I am a professional musician and I usually stay away from fictional books with musicians as character because I find them so far off from accurate. So that was definitely good. ( )
  japaul22 | Aug 7, 2014 |
It is utterly unreasonable that Wesley Stace should have been granted such talent. What can't the man do?

This book has everything: music, WWI history, romance and antiromance, heroes and antiheroes, moments of piercing beauty and moments of neck-whipping chaos, and structural complexity worth social as well as academic discussion. The ending has a whopper of a twist beating even the multiple twists that precede it (no mean feat), the critics and self-critics snark across a spectrum from little gems of snideness to brutally accurate digs, the scenery - physical and social - is evoked sparely but certainly. In other words, the people who liked Cloud Atlas before it was being filmed (back when its structural complexity was for the nerds), people who like WWI-era stories about the home front in Britain, anyone with even the vaguest hint of appreciation for the efforts of early ethnomusicology, and people who like city English humor won't fail to love this.

Especially if you get a copy of John Wesley Harding's Trad Arr Jones and listen to the recording of "Little Musgrave," then also listen to something harshly atonal and contemporary (Middle period Schoenberg is among the suggestions the narrator of the novel offers). A knowledge of operatic structure won't hurt. But you don't have to. I'm just saying that Harding, a/k/a Wesley Stace, did a knockdown version of the ballad, and thinking about how the narration reflects early 20th century antiheroic opera, with its slow dissolution of both direction and mind of each character, makes the reading even more entertaining. ( )
1 vote Nialle | Jun 19, 2013 |
I loved this book. Don’t read too many of the reviews, I think too many of them give too much away, as usual, and in this case I think it’s important to let the story unfold naturally.

This is the only thing I’ve read by Stace, AKA John Wesley Harding, and I was pleasantly surprised. He turns out to be an excellent writer, and not just "good for a musician". There are several allusions on the back cover to the "musical" writing, and I thought that was just critic talk, but I have to say it’s true; the themes that keep repeating, weaving in and out, changing slightly every time really did feel like music and worked great with the story. This is stories within stories within stories that come back in unexpected ways and take on new meaning.

This is about a composer of 100 years ago, narrated by his friend and partner, and written mostly in the style of a book from that time. He does an excellent job with this, it doesn’t have that fake old-timey feel that plagues some authors. I might have believed this was a 100 year old book, everything rings true and authentic, but it does have some nice modern touches.

It’s about music, Edwardian England and the changes that were happening, stories and the reliability of them, relationships (friends, marriage, trust), the creative process and murder. It’s not an action story. ( )
  bongo_x | Apr 6, 2013 |
I'll say it flat out: I absolutely loved this book. Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer (Picador, 2010) by Wesley Stace (also known as composer John Wesley Harding) is fascinating from start to finish, and it will amost certainly keep you guessing until the very end.

Charles Jessold, a promising young composer, kills himself, his wife, and his wife's lover on the night before the premiere of his first opera ... the plot of which is practically identical to the scenario just described. Music critic Leslie Shepherd, Jessold's librettist and longtime friend, provides first the next morning's newspaper column about the murders, then his own statement to police about his relationship with Jessold and his thoughts on the crime.

But that's not all, of course. Shepherd has more to share, and in the second half of the book, narrated many years after the fact in the guise of a full-scale biography of Jessold, he shares.

Drawing on the true story of Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo, and on the history of English music during the early decades of the 20th century, with the folk-music revival and the rivalry with the German composers of the time, Stace's book makes for a truly musical, and most enjoyable experience.

NB: I first heard of the novel on the great radio show "To the Best of our Knowledge," here. The interview is also well worth a listen, and it includes some music "in the style of Jessold."

http://philobiblos.blogspot.com/2012/02/book-review-charles-jessold-considered.h... ( )
1 vote JBD1 | Feb 19, 2012 |
The title is lengthy. That was my first thought when I saw this book. I picked it up at Borders when they were going out of business, and it intrigued me with it's music notes and faux-burned cover. It's been said that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I find that some of my favourite books I only read because they had dynamic, aesthetically-pleasing covers.

Set in England around the time of the First World War, this novel tells the story of Charles Jessold, a prodigy-like composer. It is told mostly from the point of view of Leslie Shepherd, who served as Jessold's lyricist for a portion of their relationship. Through his writing, you see that the book is really more about Shepherd's life than Jessold's.

The book starts with a newspaper article on the ending of Jessold's life, and through the first half of the book, Shepherd goes back to describe their meeting, the development of their working partnership, defining moments in Jessold's life, and circles back around to Jessold's last day.

Jessold kills his wife and her lover, and then kills himself, the evening before the opening of his opera. These events mirror the events of said opera; the opera story line, in turn, is filched from a supposedly true story about a composer called Carlo Gesualdo. (Notice that Jessold's own name is an Anglicized version of Gesualdo's.)

After these events, Jessold's name as a composer is tainted. His reputation is further tarnished by a book supposedly about his life events, suggesting that beyond simply being a murderer and a drunk, he was involved in the occult.

The second half of the book I was not expecting, and the last eighty pages or so were a complete shock to me. Without giving anything away, a man who was Jessold's foe took advantage of the lowered opinion of Jessold to write an unauthorized biography of him. Following this, Shepherd is approached by Jessold's son, now grown, to write a factual biography. We see many of the events which were included in the first half of the book, only with all of the information that we didn't have before; most importantly, this is true for the last eighty pages of the book, which focus on Jessold and Shepherd and their relationships.

This was an interesting book. It was quite beautifully written, which I find to be a luxury these days. One of my favourite quotes, which has nothing to do with the plot: "A cheer went up as the curtain finally rose, and we found ourselves once more in the looking-glass world of opera where the protagonists behave more or less normally except for the fact that they are completely unaware they are singing." (363) It's true also of musical theatre, a particular vice of mine, and is a poignant way to describe a hilarious fact.

  jordan.lusink | Dec 6, 2011 |
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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 had helped to write. The opera will never be performed.… (more)

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