June 07, 2011
Author and musician Wesley Stace has written one of the world’s few murder-music novels. His background as a musician (by the name John Wesley Harding) supplies the technical knowledge, adding authenticity to this tale of infatuation, love, music, jealousy, and murder. Narrator Lesley Shepherd, a music critic, tells a story at a cocktail party about Gesualdo, a musician who killed his wife in a fit of jealousy. Charles Jessold, a boy wonder of the piano scene, becomes obsessed and inspired by Gesualdo’s legacy and models various aspects of his own life after Gesualdo’s. Shepherd, along with most people who encounter Jessold, in turn becomes somewhat obsessed with Jessold, vying for his attention and even turning a cheek when Jessold takes Shepherd’s wife as a lover.
While Jessold is the namesake and troubled darling of this hefty novel, his tale is somewhat cliché – boy has talent, boy becomes famous very young, boy struggles to adjust as a man, people excuse boy’s behavior, boy finally gets into trouble he cannot escape. Perhaps the most interesting is Lesley Shepherd, the adoring music critic who fosters Jessold’s talents in the first phase of the book, ghostwrites an opera with him in the second, and closes out the story as an old man writing Jessold’s biography. Throughout the story he runs the gamut of emotions about Jessold – complete adoration, jealousy, disgust, shame, pity, admiration, despair. While he is helping Jessold dig through his ego to the natural talent he truly does possess, we begin to wonder if anyone can really be this selfless. But Shepherd is a platonic groupie of sorts, inwardly proud to be one of the first to recognize Jessold’s talents and, most importantly, one of his first real friends. Within the music world of 1920’s England, Shepherd is a prominent music critic with a solid reputation. At home, we see an interesting base of operations as Shepherd interacts with his beautiful wife as an acquaintance whose opinion he respects but who will always remain distant. He is married to a wealthy, intelligent, beautiful woman who he has no sexual relations with, and he looks the other way when she falls for the Misunderstood Artist, Jessold. With such a polite, passionless home life, it’s interesting that Shepherd had the energy or interest to invest in Jessold’s adventures. Then again, perhaps that is precisely why he had such energy and interest for it.
Shepherd and Jessold embark on the challenging journey of writing and composing an opera together, where “art imitates life,” or perhaps “life imitates art,” as their opera tells the tale of an infidelity. Now married with a child, Jessold is difficult to reach for collaboration, and is still behaving inappropriately in public. Not surprisingly, Shepherd and Jessold have differing work ethics, but both agree on the strength of their collaborative skills. Little Musgrave is supposed to be the opera to revive English music, but its success is cut short when Jessold commits suicide after shooting his wife and her lover. Or so the world believes for many years.
Suddenly, we are transported to Shepherd’s seventh decade of life, when he is reflecting on his life and asked to become Jessold’s biographer during a new staging of Little Musgrave. This biography was requested by Jessold’s son, who wants his father’s reputation to be cleared so that he might be remembered for his musical contributions. Shepherd is still the kind soul he has consistently shown himself to be throughout the story, although he is now dependent on a home attendant to dress him in his sharp daily suits and help him get through life with tinnitus, an unfortunate occupational hazard. He is approached by Jessold’s son, who survived the gruesome evening many years earlier, to write Charles Jessold’s biography. Shepherd is torn – he is a weary old man who has carried this tale on his back for many years. However, he has carried this tale on his back for many years, and perhaps it is time to set the record straight.
Stace delves deeply into the specific musical community of the time, a time when musical talents were sought and appreciated, whether they were in a young boy or a worker summoned from the fields to sing a gospel for guests in his living room. Stace’s style is detail-oriented and careful, leading much of the story to move smoothly but slowly until we reach the short tragedy scene, when we quickly crash over the falls and are back to smooth, slow waters through the final biography segment. Stace delivers a well-researched, unique book, capturing a specific musical setting in great detail without being an actual textbook. Perhaps to a music aficionado this is a long-awaited niche market waiting to be filled – a tale of love, murder, and scandal all set deep within valuable musical knowledge. To the novice, however, this may just be another tale of jealousy and murder stuck inside hundreds of pages of slow-moving musical jargon the average civilian has no interest in wading through.