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'Charles Jessold': Composing murder, music

CHARLES JESSOLD, CONSIDERED AS A MURDERER, by Wesley Stace. Picador, 390 pp., $15 paper.

In "Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer," there is murder, but more important, there is the pretentious, erudite and dryly funny writer who tells us about it. In 1910, music critic Leslie Shepherd befriends Charles Jessold, a young and promising composer. We know from the 1923 news clipping that kicks off the book what's coming: Jessold kills his wife, her lover and himself, leaving an infant son orphaned. The murders happen on the eve of the premiere of Jessold's first opera, the tragedy eerily mirroring the work's end.

Set in England, this novel by Wesley Stace -- known to music fans as singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding -- tells the story of Jessold in a document Shepherd writes for the police. They meet at a country house full of musical types visiting for the weekend. Early 20th-century England was celebrating a rediscovery of its folk music, and this circle hunts folk songs like prey. Shepherd is impressed by Jessold's ability to compose work based on those songs. Jessold sees, in the older man, a patron.

Shepherd is a traditionalist and British nationalist, a vocal opponent of the music coming from the European continent. This is Shepherd, on hearing Arnold Schoenberg: "His was the triumph of theory over practice, abstraction over depiction, of cold intellectual thought over the urge to give pleasure; it was the end of music as I could possibly know or describe it."

Shepherd's anti-modernism causes a rift between him and Jessold. The younger man leaves to study in Germany, is caught by World War I and returns changed. Their relationship is strained; although Shepherd will provide the libretto to Jessold's opera, he doesn't hear the music until the final dress rehearsal. That night, he and his wife -- Shepherd has a wife! -- see a drunk Jessold argue with his wife and her lover, and the tragic end arrives.

But we're only halfway through the book. In Part 2, set after World War II, Shepherd's career as a critic is over: He has developed tinnitus, a ringing in the ears and hypersensitivity to sound. He craves contact, so when Jessold's grown son suggests he write a biography, Shepherd says yes.

Now, Shepherd fills in things omitted in the first half -- about himself and Miriam (now dead), and the years that followed Jessold's death. When earlier scenes are shown from a new angle, Miriam is revealed to have been standing just out of frame.

Carefully plotted and brilliantly executed, the novel came from a true tale that Shepherd tells on the weekend he met Jessold: Carlo Gesualdo, a 16th- century Italian composer, murdered his wife and her lover, after perhaps setting them up. This awful story is echoed in a folk song Shepherd and Jessold hear; the song becomes the basis for Jessold's opera. "Charles Jessold" seems to be an easily parsed tragedy, but it becomes increasingly difficult to sort out who is hero, victim and villain in an echoing love triangle.


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