By Anna Mundow
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 6:51 PM
Wesley Stace's new novel, "Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer," is at first glance a straightforward period thriller. On a summer night in 1923, three people are found dead in a London flat. Charles Jessold, a celebrated young composer, has apparently poisoned his wife and her lover and then shot himself in the head. It seems tragically fitting that all three characters had just returned from the final rehearsal of Jessold's opera "Little Musgrave," a revenge tale whose plot bears an uncanny resemblance to the Jessold murders.
Leslie Shepherd, a friend who witnessed an altercation between the Jessolds earlier that evening, gives a statement to the police, but this seems to him inadequate. He is moved to write a longer and more personal account of the Jessold he knew. "I met Charles Jessold, the murderer, on 21 May 1910, the day after King Edward's funeral," recalls Shepherd. He's a music critic who encountered Jessold at a country house weekend where the neophyte composer charmed the jaded company, although "his touch is a little agricultural," as someone observes of Jessold's piano playing, "probably [due to] years of banging out 'Poor Wandering One' for the daughters of the local clergy."
There are strong echoes here of Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited," but Leslie Shepherd is no Charles Ryder. An arch and often snide narrator who embodies the arrogance and xenophobia of his age (he hates Wagner and German culture in general), Shepherd repels sympathy. "I do not care for the pastoral itself," he sniffs as he and Jessold set out during the weekend to unearth folk songs in the surrounding countryside.
This is the era of England's folk-song revival, and Stace skillfully evokes the excitement of the collectors' hunt for undiscovered songs and singers as well as the emotional power of the music itself. When Jessold and Shepherd come across a genuine shepherd who shyly responds to their request for a song, even the chilly critic is astonished. "What he gave us then was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard," Shepherd recalls of the man's rendition of "The Ballad of Little Mossgrave and Lydie Barnard." Stace reproduces the ballad, commonly known as "Little Musgrave," in its entirety, and the passage is one of the most affecting in the novel.
"Little Musgrave" both inspires Jessold's opera and foreshadows the nature of his death, but there is another uncanny reverberation sounding throughout the novel. It is the story that Shepherd relates to Jessold of Carlo Gesualdo, the 16th century "Prince of Venosa, musician, madrigalist . . . and murderer" who laid a trap for his wife and her lover and then murdered them. Gesualdo and Jessold are clearly fated to have more than a first name in common. (Stace acknowledges that his novel was inspired by a 17th-century essay called "Carlo Gesualdo Considered as Murderer.")
The parallels between the dramas of Jessold, of Gesualdo and of the characters in "Little Musgrave" are so explicit that the novel's trajectory would seem to be as predictable as that of any revenge tragedy, but Stace has several plot twists in store for the reader. Fate will go about its stealthy business even as political and cultural upheavals rattle England's prewar complacency. Stace, himself a musician and composer under the alias John Wesley Harding, conveys particularly well the shocking effect, for example, of Richard Strauss's opera "Salome" when it is staged in Austria in 1906. "I may drop a few names," Shepherd recalls of the opening night, "Giacomo Puccini, the Lucchese, with straw hat and cigar . . . a studious, rather pained-looking Gustav Mahler; Arnold Schoenberg . . . and most notoriously of all, a young Adolf Hitler."
The imagined music composed by Jessold is audible in these pages, but Shepherd's domestic world is far quieter. He and his enigmatic young wife, Miriam, inhabit a cocoon whose fragility is tested first by his friendship with Jessold and gradually by a more mysterious intrusion. It is at this midway point in the novel that Shepherd's tone becomes more intimate and the narrative more opaque. A love triangle takes shape, but who are the players? As hints of forbidden passions and shameful secrets multiply, Stace's novel - which has until then been clever and a little pretentious - becomes morbidly engaging. The final twist is both affectingly pathetic and suitably operatic.
Mundow is a literary columnist for the Boston Globe.
CHARLES JESSOLD, CONSIDERED AS A MURDERER
. By Wesley Stace.
Picador. 389 pp. Paperback, $15.