Stace's 'Jessold': A Well-Orchestrated Murder Mystery In Wesley Stace's Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, a World War I-era composer is accused of murder/suicide — and two biographies within the novel attempt to get to the heart of the story. The novel raises questions of truth, blame and how to prove a dead man's innocence.
NPR logo Stace's 'Jessold': A Well-Orchestrated Murder Mystery


Stace's 'Jessold': A Well-Orchestrated Murder Mystery

Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer by Wesley Stace
Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer
By Wesley Stace
Paperback, 400 pages
List Price: $15
Read An Excerpt

There was a legend in Victorian England that when Friedrich Handel was the chapel master to the Duke of Chandos, he was caught in a ferocious thunderstorm one afternoon while out walking and took shelter in a blacksmith's workshop. He witnessed the blacksmith singing in time with the striking of his hammer against his anvil. Victorian music journals debated endlessly the story's validity, and whether the steel smack of the singing metal forger inspired the melody for the final movement of one of Handel's most famous pieces of music, Suite No. 5 in E Major, otherwise known as "The Harmonious Blacksmith."

I bring this legend up with regards to Wesley Stace's excellent third novel, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, not only because the book's titular composer, Jessold, writes a tribute to Handel's suite — an atonal study called "The Inharmonious Blacksmith" — but also because the book explores the idea of narrative as the circulation of gossip.

Jessold is a young, excitable composer in the years leading up to World War I. We are introduced to him by way of a news article about his death: "COMPOSER KILLS WIFE, ANOTHER, COMMITS SUICIDE." Stace spends 400 pages opening up a single quotation from that article — "The musical critic of this newspaper, a sometime collaborator of the composer, Leslie Shepherd, blamed Jessold's alcoholism and obsessive nature, declaring the murders an unnecessary tragedy, one that would inevitably tarnish the composer's legacy." The matter of Jessold's legacy is at the heart of the novel's construction: two separate books within a book, each written by Shepherd, a music critic and the composer's collaborator on his final masterpiece, Little Musgrave, which was performed for the first and last time — a dress rehearsal — the final night of Jessold's life.

The two separate books are a veritable lesson in the question of authenticity in narrative. The first, an "objective" biography-cum-police report of Jessold's life and death, reveals its falsehoods and considerable plot holes only after the second book, Shepherd's personal memoir of his relationship with the composer, is revealed. Both texts are an attempt at abolishing Jessold's inauspicious posthumous reputation, a result of his supposed double murder/suicide, defenses of his body of work. Yet the two halves are near opposites, like two tonal and atonal scales in the same key. "Biography makes sense of art," Shepherd remarks at one point, though what he really means is deferred until the very end: "Art is more important than my life."

Wesley Stace performs as a rock and folk singer-songwriter under the stage name John Wesley Harding, taken from a Bob Dylan song of the same name. Charles Jessold is his third novel. Lizzie Himmel hide caption

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Lizzie Himmel

The two books inside Stace's smart and highly stylized novel interpret one another. During the first telling of the performance of Little Musgrave, for which Shepherd wrote the libretto, our narrator sits in the audience, overwhelmed by the music. "Not even epic evenings of Wagner, five-and-a-half-hour marathons that left me reeling, unable to orient myself through the dull reality of the London streets, had had a vaguely comparable effect," he claims. In the more confessional telling of the scene, we learn the real reason for his weariness is that Jessold had rewritten the libretto entirely. "The surprise, however," he says, "was not that so much wasn't mine, but that so much was. Though he had rearranged and rendered unrecognizable much of my written work, it was still there."

This confusion of Jessold's words with Shepherd's in the performance of Little Musgrave is a kind of metaphor for the book itself. It raises the question: What do we believe? Just like Handel's legend with the blacksmith — a miserable myth or the reality behind his greatest composition, depending on which music journal you read — we can never be sure of the real story, whether we should consider Jessold a murderer or just misunderstood.

Michael H. Miller writes for the New York Observer. He lives in Brooklyn.

Excerpt: 'Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer'

Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer by Wesley Stace
Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer
By Wesley Stace
Paperback, 400 pages
List Price: $15

The World, 24 June 1923





A double murder followed by the suicide of the perpetrator has taken place in a cul- de- sac off Kensington High Street. Jealousy is the principal motive for the crime.

The police were summoned at two o'clock yesterday morning, when witnesses at Cadogan Mansions in Drapery Street were startled by the report of a revolver. Constable

Williams, forcing the door open, found the body of the composer Charles Jessold, aged 35 years, holding a bloodstained five- chambered revolver, which he had discharged into his jaw. On the bed lay the bodies of his wife, mezzo soprano Victoria London, 30, and Edward Manville, 40, a married man. The Jessolds' two- month old baby was found awake in his crib.

Police reported that the administration of fatal doses of arsenic was the cause of death of Miss London and Mr Manville, raising the possibility that Jessold watched their death- agonies before taking his own life, therefore making the tragedy threefold.

Earlier in the evening, all three had attended a dress rehearsal of the composer's first opera, Little Musgrave, which was to be given its premiere by the English Opera Company in two days. At the private party that followed,

Charles Jessold was seen in heated argument with Mr Manville, who subsequently departed with Miss London for the Jessolds' Kensington home where they relieved the nurse who was caring for the Jessolds' infant son.

Jessold had been drinking heavily and numerous witnesses reported that his behaviour was erratic. He told an intimate that his wife had stated her intention to end the marriage, retaining custody of the child.

Regardless of the composer's death, gruesome parallels between this triple domestic tragedy and Jessold's opera Little Musgrave, in which Lord Barnard murders his wife and her lover, ensure that the EOC has no choice but to cancel the production. It is expected that The Magic Flute, under the baton of Sir Arnold Bentham, will take its place in the repertory this season.

Charles Jessold was best known for the string quartet composed while he was captive at the Badenstein internment camp. Among his other compositions were The Soda Syphon Symphony, the tone poem Séance, the Folk- Song Oratorio, and his popular suite Shandyisms. In 1918, he was the first recipient of the Composers Guild's Young Composer of the Year award.

The musical critic of this newspaper, a sometime collaborator of the composer, Leslie Shepherd, blamed Jessold's alcoholism and obsessive nature, declaring the murders an unnecessary tragedy, one that would inevitably tarnish the composer's legacy.

* * *

As The World noted, I was both witness to the events at the party and

Jessold's collaborator. As such, I gave my statement to the police at Kensington on 25 June. (I had expected to spend that day anticipating the premiere of Little Musgrave, but I found myself instead in a onewindowed interrogation room.) This brief, uninspiring experience persuaded me to gather my memories of the composer: to flesh him out, as it were, as I knew him.

I was not to become Jessold's official biographer until many years later, but when the commission came, I was glad of this albeit partial narrative, written when events were fresh in my mind and my memory was at its best. Perhaps if everyone the composer knew had done half as much, we'd have a more complete picture of a man who allowed each of his magic circle access to a mere fragment of him. At the time, however, most people were happy to forget his very existence.

I gave this personal memoir to the police, in case it might be of use. What they made of it I have no idea: perhaps I should have enclosed a stamped addressed envelope so they could notify me of receipt. Perhaps it arrived too late. I now imagine my typed pages at rest in a dusty folder in a far- flung filing cabinet: 'Closed Cases Archive – J'.

But I wrote it primarily for myself, to set the record straight, to tell the story I knew, to clear my mind. That I also gave it to the police was certainly to the advantage of all.

I offer it here, as is, without further remark. The rest of the story comes later.

Chapter 1: Charles Jessold, As I Knew Him

I met Charles Jessold, the murderer, on 21 May 1910, the day after King Edward's funeral. We were guests at a Hatton Manor Saturday- to- Monday, and it was on that very first evening that I had occasion to tell of Carlo Gesualdo, the composer whose story made such a lasting impression.

I had just entered the room, a quick inventory of which revealed: three composers (one of note, two of naught), a conductor, and a miscellany of vicars, musical scholars and enthusiasts; not to mention Cedric Mount (our most esteemed member) and of course Antic Jackson who, despite arriving on the same late train from town, had managed to beat me downstairs. I was, as ever, the token musical critic.

The only stranger was a young man standing over the piano. In impeccably creased grey flannels and gaudily striped tie, he was our junior by some years. His face, a pick- and- mix assortment, conformed to no classical ideal. His forehead was too broad and his lips too mean for his fleshy cheeks, although the ever- glimmering smile at their left corner gave an impression of geniality.

His thick black hair was slicked lavishly with pomade.

His eyes, later described as devilish, were nothing of the kind; rather they were beady, though being a lucid emerald green, not unattractively so. In conversation, they spoke directly to you, a somewhat unnerving compliment that turned a stranger into a confidant whether he cared to be or not. When it was his turn to listen, those eyes never strayed from yours. To avoid his gaze, one sought refuge in the perfectly straight line from the top of his nose to the cusp of the chin that he was later to disguise with a goatee (interpreted as Mephistophelean, of course). Above his eyes, that pale billboard of forehead advertised his every flicker of emotion.

This newcomer leaned in rapt attention, back arched to a stylised forty- five degrees, his elbow on the lid of the piano, hand to his chin, thumb tucked under: a remarkably self- conscious pose. I found myself wondering whether he was perhaps used to being observed. He certainly 'lit up' a room. Any producer worth his salt would have plucked him from a crowd.

I realised that someone was playing the piano only when he stopped. The pianist, Mark Wallington, rose and with a sweep of the hand surrendered his stool to the young man, whose mask of deliberation disappeared into a broad smile that bared unruly teeth dominated by handsomely vampirical incisors. He raised his hands, as if to demonstrate that there was nothing up his sleeves, and played what he had just heard to an astonishing degree of accuracy. The performance, brought off with some relish, was greeted by applause from a group by the fireside.

Excerpted from Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer by Wesley Stace. Copyright 2010 by Wesley Stace. Published in the United States by Picador. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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