29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb historical thriller
What a find this novel was. I had never heard of author Wesley Stace but now I will read everything he has written. He is an author and musician and here he combines both in an intricately written psychological historical novel. With historical fiction it is important that time and place be real to the extent of being a character in itself. Stace far surpasses that...
Published on January 17, 2011 by barry
16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "With a Cheshire Cat grin, he toasted the thought, the art, the murders."
Set in 1923 England, Stace's novel of the tragic end to the short life and potential fame of composer Charles Jessod is steeped in the esoterica of music, the language and references of composition and the cultural values a community passionate about musical construction, motive and history. The eagerly anticipated seminal opera of Jessod's volatile career, "Little...
Published on January 26, 2011 by Luan Gaines
Most Helpful First | Newest First
29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb historical thriller,
What a find this novel was. I had never heard of author Wesley Stace but now I will read everything he has written. He is an author and musician and here he combines both in an intricately written psychological historical novel. With historical fiction it is important that time and place be real to the extent of being a character in itself. Stace far surpasses that requirement here. This book is written with literary prose that fully respects the written word. His sentences and phrases are works of art and the fact that this happens in a novel where music takes center stage is no mistake. We are fully placed in the early 1900s and then the deeply psychological aspect of the book takes form. All the characters here are fully developed and true creations. Charles Jessold is a young composer who on the night before the premiere of his new opera kills his wife, her lover and then commits suicide. Critic Leslie Shepperd tells the story and he also happens to have cowritten the opera. He tells the story to us from three different perspectives and with each perspective the way the mysteries and answers unfold is ingenious.
Wesley Stace is not a new author but he is new to me. This novel fills me with great admiration of his work. One must read this novel to be able to fully appreciate his gifts as an author. This definitely can only be defined as musical fiction. What a creation. This is a very intelligent piece of work that fully respects the reader. Be prepared to be taken to another place and time and be well taken care of by author Stace. This novel is a very welcome addition to historical fiction and I highly recommend it. Put it at the top of your to read list.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Murder Mystery or Music Criticism?,
Wesley Stace's ample new novel -- half murder mystery, half music criticism -- opens with a press report on the death of the talented young English composer Charles Jessold in 1923. He appears to have shot himself in his apartment after poisoning his wife and his wife's lover and watching them die. The murder-suicide has not one but two ironic precedents. It reproduces the story of the Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, who similarly killed his wife with her lover. It is also the subject of an English folk-ballad, "Lord Barnard and Little Musgrave," which Jessold had taken as the subject for his operatic magnum opus, due to premiere the following night. Given the circumstances, the opera was canceled and Jessold's posthumous reputation ruined. It seems clear that he was a man obsessed by the career of Gesualdo, his near-namesake, as he squandered his own talent in alcoholism and excess. The facts are not in dispute; it only remains to trace the sorry path that led to this debacle, and ascertain the composer's possible motives.
This task is left to Leslie Shepherd, a gentleman of independent means who writes musical criticism for a leading London paper. Meeting Jessold at a country-house weekend, he takes it upon himself to promote the young man and guide his early career. It is the period of the English folk-song revival, when composers such as Vaughan-Williams and Holst would go out into the countryside to transcribe ancient versions of the old ballads as sung by aged countrymen, in search of a home-grown nationalism to combat the dominance of German music. Jessold is staying with Shepherd and his wife Miriam when they hear the "Little Mossgrave" ballad (sic) sung by an old sheep-shearer, planting the seed for the eventual opera, for which Shepherd will write at least the first draft of the libretto. But a decade must pass before that. Jessold attracts attention with a number of smaller compositions; he makes two trips to study in Germany, but is trapped there by the outbreak of the 1914 war, and spends the next four years in an internment camp. There, he manages to write music of ever greater brilliance, and returns to London in 1918 as a musical celebrity and clearly the next great hope for British music. But he also becomes personally unreliable, rejecting his old friends, and turning to drink.
Wesley Stace is clearly a musician; in fact he has a separate career as a singer-songwriter under the name John Wesley Harding. But he knows the classical repertoire too. Unlike virtually all novels about musicians that I have read (Vikram Seth's AN EQUAL MUSIC being the sole other exception), the musical background to this one is impeccable. Stace understands the conflict in prewar British music between pastoral Englishism and dilettantish daring. He is also aware of the great movements on the continent; he has superb passages on Stravinsky's RITE OF SPRING and especially Schoenberg's second string quartet, the work in which he renounced tonality. Shepherd sums up his experience of the latter: "Yet I had to admit that I too felt the wonder of the music, its power, its horror. I had laughed at Jessold's 'breeze from other planets', but I had experienced it, that chill wind blowing from the future, in the hairs on the back of my neck, in my soul." Stace is brilliant at showing how Jessold steered his way between these various influences. He makes the composer always plausible, but very much his own man. If there is any one composer whose early music one thinks of more than others, it is Benjamin Britten, and the 1945 premiere of Britten's PETER GRIMES is another of the brilliant musical set-pieces in the book.
I do have problems, however. There are many times when I am not sure whether the music is just the background to the personal story, or whether the story has been devised solely to enable Stace to write about the music. As a musician myself (including as an opera librettist and former critic!), I was fascinated by everything, but other readers might find the book slow. Stace also goes out of his way to imitate the mandarin style of a lot of English writing at the beginning of the century, flowing with the stately amplitude of a Henry James, and there are times when you just wish he would get on with it. This is especially so in the second part of the book, after Jessold is long since dead, and Stace continues into the later years of his biographer, Leslie Shepherd. The musical details continue to fascinate, but when Hamlet has left the scene, who is interested in Horatio? Yet stick with it while Stace goes through the same events again but from an intiguingly different perspective. Some of his surprises come close to narrative cheating, but in the end they transform the book into a different kind of psychological study altogether, still very much worth the reading.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Murder Most Musical (In Shades of "Dorian Gray"),
I cannot remember the last time I was as enthralled with a novel as I've been with "Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer." Superbly written and expertly plotted, author Wesley Stace has blessed us with the kind of book they don't make anymore: a literate, thinking man's mystery. Combining the wit of Oscar Wilde with the execution and skill of Dorothy L. Sayers, it's a brilliant, erudite delight that echoes past classics. The first person narrative moves forward with the steady, relentless suspense of DeMaurier's "Rebecca;" and the milieu draws clear parallels to the homoerotically charged drawing rooms of Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Or does it? Like Agatha Christie at her best, Stace is a master of misdirection, devilishly toying with our grasp of just what story he's telling - and whose; I was happily surprised on more than one occasion.
If the world of England's musical literati in the first half of the 20th century means nothing to you (if, for instance, you have no knowledge of or interest in composers like Vaughan Williams or Benjamin Britten), "Charles Jessold..." may seem a tad pretentious and refined in its sensibilities. But if the time and place, as well as the aforementioned authors, get you salivating, I think you'll devour this book with the same relish and pleasure as have I.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing and Disturbing Novel...,
In "Charles Gessold, Considered as a Murderer," Wesley Stace has given readers a unique, sometimes troubling novel. Stace's knowledge of composers and the music world is evident throughout the book. It is, however, the major focus in the first quarter of the book and may for some, as it did for me, become rather tedious. However, this sets the scene for some of the most intriguing story-telling in current fiction. Stace creates complex characters; he slowly reveals their personalities, their morals, and their conscience, or lack thereof. Again, while this contributes mightily to the rich texture of the novel, it may also cause less diligent readers to lose interest in the book.
Beginning in 1910, the book, through the words of music critic Leslie Shepherd, tells of the rise and fall of composer Charles Gessold. Shepherd plays an integral part in both Gessold's professional and personal life. In turn, Gessold has a significant impact on Shepherd's professional as well as his personal life. As he narrates their story, Shepherd "considers" "Gessold as a murderer" - he examines whether Gessold is, indeed, a murderer. Society, however, "considers" "Gessold as a murderer" - they have deemed him to be one. These two differing views of Gessold comprise the balance of this unusual story.
Gessold's life, initially, is presented so that one may imagine it somewhat parallels that of Christ. Just as a Messiah was devoutly prayed for by the Hebrews - with respect to English opera - ..."an English opera by an English composer was ... devoutly wished for." Like Christ, Gessold is a young man from a small, rural town; at the age of thirty, he begins to gain recognition. After a period in the wilderness, Christ spent forty days and nights there; He then began His ministry and gained public recognition. For four years during World War I, Gessold is interred in Germany - upon returning to England, he comes into his own as a composer and gains widespread public recognition. It is at this point the possible parallels cease; Gessold embarks on a course of self-centered actions which negatively impact the lives of other characters. Shepherd is portrayed as a cultured dilettante; his career and life are the result of an "arranged" marriage with his employer's daughter, Miriam. Miriam will play a major role in the novel's progression; any further discussion might spoil the story for some readers.
My initial reaction to this book was less than positive. I found it to be a tedious read, particularly when Leslie Shepherd's discussions moved into the realm of composers and music; this resulted in my four-star rating. However, once Stace set the stage and moved into the meat of the novel, I was hooked. The final half of "Charles Gessold, Considered as a Murderer" makes this as intriguing a book as any I have recently read. Had the entire book been as captivating, I would have given it a five-star review. I urge you to be patient if, like me, you are not familiar with music and musicians and to read on. I hope you will find this book as interesting and as disturbing as I did.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Intelligent Mystery,
I am not a musical scholar so I will admit that parts of this novel were out of my element but the story overall was an intelligent and intriguing mystery. The language of the story is, in itself, almost musical. I would often go back and re-read a paragraph or line just because I so enjoyed the lyrical sound and feel of the words. Above all, however, it is a gripping mystery tale about a composer who writes an opera. The opera becomes a self fulfilling prophecy when on its opening night, Charles Jessold kills his wife, her lover and himself. His friend and co-composer tells the story of Mr. Jessold, his life and music in this book and it is a story that should not be missed by fans of historial fiction.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Murderer Born In Love - An excellent, fascinating fiction.,
"Charles Jessold, Considered As a Murderer", Wesley Stace's third book, is his touchstone novel to date. Followers of John Wesley Harding's music can find new levels of appreciation and insight into pieces Wes has performed in the past. The folk song "Little Musgrave", re-imagined as an opera here, is a case in point. I could heard this opera in my head as I read (although hearing pieces composed by Stace for the novel influenced my original conception of that music).
The writing is reminiscent of Misfortune, Stace's first novel whose genesis came from a song he composed, but here the interplay between music and literature is taken to another level.
The book's structure is as inventive as the subject. The author acknowledges Werner Herzog's "Death for Five Voices" as his inspiration for this novel's theme. The tale is fashioned to weave with the story of Carlo Gesualdo, the historic Italian nobleman who was both a musician and murderer. Herzog's film dances between drama and documentary to attain what Herzog calls ecstatic truth. This novel motivates the reader to dive into all the referenced music, art and literature inside and outside the book for additional inspiration.
"Charles Jessold, Considered As a Murderer" both entertains and educates. A worthwhile book to read more than once.
16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "With a Cheshire Cat grin, he toasted the thought, the art, the murders.",
This review is from: Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer (Hardcover)
Set in 1923 England, Stace's novel of the tragic end to the short life and potential fame of composer Charles Jessod is steeped in the esoterica of music, the language and references of composition and the cultural values a community passionate about musical construction, motive and history. The eagerly anticipated seminal opera of Jessod's volatile career, "Little Musgrave:, is never performed for the public. A significant friendship with the increasingly irascible Jessod is chronicled in a short police report and the two-part journal of music critic Leslie Shepherd. Shepherd is witness to the development of the young composer's work, the two men sharing an appreciation for genius, the importance of folk song and its influence on the national psyche.
Jessod is enamored of the story of an Italian composer who kills his wife and her lover, then commits suicide on the eve of his own opera, a model for Jessod's similar demise years later, fueling the myth of the young Jessod's legacy. But the dislocation of the First World War both colors Jessod's evolution as an artist and the relationship between the two men, a blurring of boundaries that lends Shepherd's story an avuncular perspective. The war leads to political disenchantment with all things German for the stalwart Brits, including the composers England had so long embraced as cultural icons. But more than Jessod's story, this novel belongs to Shepherd, a man in thrall to genius and the ambiance of the creative environment. Wrapped in the layers of his erudition, Shepherd takes the entire length of the novel to shed his secrets and bare his soul, as tedious an account as the manner in which his need for expiation overcomes his reticence.
I understood from the start that this would be an unusual journey, certainly covering an area of interest beyond my appreciation for the particularity of detail, a rarified place where critics mingle with composers and national pride incubates. Fine. I wander into unfamiliar territory, awaiting enlightenment. Instead, with each new chapter, the essence remains elusive: I have barely gleaned the sense of this relationship or the passion of its inception, my brain cluttered with arcane verbiage like a stuffy Victorian parlor. When Shepherd finally regurgitates his secret, even this self-serving confession is wrapped in layers of obfuscation. Truly, I am at a loss to assign a rating, to ascertain whether I have been intellectually duped into complicity or too thick to appreciate Stace's talent for turn-of-the-century overstatement. I am exhausted but not inspired, neither in communication with art nor enriched by Shepherd's folly: "No more music. No More noise. " Indeed. Luan Gaines/2011.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A truly literary murder mystery,
I can't comment on the 'musical novel' as I don't know much about the genre, but as a literary, historical mystery, I don't think you can get much beter than Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer. The author (a musician and writer) has captured the voice, tone, and vocabulary of the time and place he's depicting: the early nineteen-hundreds. It's not exactly fin-de-siecle, but it's the decade on the other side of the 1900 time line, so if you are familiar with the world of Vienna and Paris during that time, you should feel comfortable in this one. Jessold, who is described via the narrator, a rather hauty music critic that writes for the London musical/literati set and hangs out with them as well, has a unique voice that differentiates him from the more anarchic Jessold. It's no Mozart/Salieri competition however. Each man is happy with his chosen profession, although what is in the mind of Jessold is not quite evident through the development phase of the novel. Jessold does have a bit of a Mozart-personality--takes his talents for granted, isn't shy to celebrate a 'folk singer' whom he enjoys or condemn canonic music he finds stuffy. There are a number of time correspondences and coincidences in the book that appear to suggest Jessold, if not an incarnation of composers past--is somehow influenced by them--not just in regards to his music but his destiny. The title of the book immediately gives the reader an apparent indication of the crime. That might suggest there's no suspense. However, the character development and plot development soon make you forget about the denouement and live within the world of the story. There's lots of fun to be had in the novel. The language mastery of the author is apparent, and not forced and unreliable as some who have written in the historical fiction genre. That in itself commends this book. It also provides an education of sorts about objects and places of the period, and the 'salons' that seem to be in favor among the musicarati in the novel are filled with performances, banter, and descriptions of well-prepared food. I suppose this is a sort of escapist fiction, but it's the best kind.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Delicious,
My first thought as I began reading "Charles Jessold" was "this is delicious!" which seemed sort of a strange way to describe a musical novel, but I was "hungry for more!" :) As I continued through the intricate twists and turns that comprise the tale of murder set against a background of love won and lost, psychological intrigue, musical history, and war, I found Mr. Stace's story to be charming, clever, engaging, and far from the run of the mill approach to unwinding a mystery. I truly enjoyed this book. My only two "issues" with this book were that there was a section about half way into it, maybe a little more, where it felt like it was getting a bit tedious and I felt like I might want to skip it and jump ahead to get back to the good stuff but then just in time, I was back following intensely the last several chapters. The other little issue was at times I found the musical references a bit too "intellectual" and thought if I had not had some musical training of my own, I might have been lost (as it was, I did find myself having to look up some things just to be sure I understood). That said, I really enjoyed this book quite a big and definitely recommend it to other mystery fans.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More music history than mystery,
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
I agree with other reviewers who suspect that Wesley Stace really wanted to write about the music history of the period and only secondarily to craft a murder mystery. I read a lot of mysteries, and I thought that aspect of the book was less than stellar. The music history part seemed very knowledgeable - although I'm only an amateur musician, I appreciated reading about opera and composers in the time period covered. The author weaves the fictional part of the music story into the real historical part seamlessly. [Spoiler Alert] As a mystery fan, though, I suspected that the narrator was less than trustworthy from the start, although I didn't work out the true significance of his involvement. In The Body in the Library, Agatha Christie gives us what I consider a fine example of a narrator who truly misleads the reader in fine fashion. By contrast, Leslie Shepherd, the narrator in this book, was suspect and not believable from the first. Also, the character of Miriam was, in my opinion, not really believable in her suddenly passionate involvement with Jessold; further, Shepherd's reaction to their affair was so strangely muted. I feel the plotted mystery is weak and agree that the reader has to slog a bit to get to the final outcome. It's not a bad mystery, but it isn't a great one.
Most Helpful First | Newest First
Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer by Wesley Stace (Paperback - February 1, 2011)