Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer

Written by Wesley Stace
Review by Bethany Latham

Allow me to admit something to you up front: I may not have been the right audience to properly appreciate this book. Do I possess a working knowledge of music theory and a basic historical understanding of major composers and movements? Sure. Did I want detailed education through a treatise on these things in the guise of what I’d thought was a murder mystery with literary pretensions? Nope.

Opening in 1923 and told as a memoir after the fact by fictional music critic Leslie Shepherd, this is ostensibly the “macabre story” of fictional composer Charles Jessold, who kills his wife, her lover, and then himself on the eve of his greatest triumph — the premiere of his opera. In actuality, through Shepherd’s affected narration, it reads as combination biography and discourse on the advent of modernism and atonal composition in Edwardian England. (Yep, you heard me right.) Even World War I can neither coax nor beat forward the dragging plot, used as it is only to further discussion on this momentous event’s effect… on Jessold’s composition. Part of the problem may be that Shepherd, as narrator, is too pretentious to be appealing and also evinces a board-flat sense of humor; Jessold, while more dynamic, likewise fails to fascinate. Another issue may be that Stace, as a musician, has not separated what engrosses him (and I’ve spent enough time around jazz musicians to witness this in extreme form) from what 98% of the population doesn’t wish to listen to, unrelieved, for hours on end.

I wanted to like this book, for I could tell a great deal of effort and also some imagination went into it – but I simply could not, for, in short, it bored me.