Wesley Stace's third novel, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, is simultaneously a kunstlerroman, a historical novel, and a novel about both biographical interpretation and the writing of biography. Its genealogy ranges from Nabokov's Pale Fire (which Stace has acknowledged is an important influence) and James' The Aspern Papers to more recent efforts like Susan Schomberg Schaeffer's Poison, Gilbert Adair's Love and Death on Long Island, and Kate Christensen's The Great Man. (Adair's enthusiasm for this novel is rather muted.) The novel begins at what initially seems to be the end: a newspaper report announcing the murder-suicide of composer Charles Jerrold; his wife, singer Victoria London; and his wife's lover, Edward Manville. In its conclusion, the report quotes music critic Leslie Shepherd, who "blamed Jessold's alcoholism and obsessive nature, declaring the murders an unnecessary tragedy, one that would inevitably tarnish the composer's legacy" (2). Shepherd's last words, needless to say, deliberately oversimplify what turns out to be a far more complex situation, even as they also prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In what follows, Shepherd seeks to untangle Jessold's increasingly elusive character, the relationship of his music to early twentieth-century history, and his own role in Jessold's construction--and destruction.
The novel actually consists of two narratives: the lengthy memoir (it's half the book) that Shepherd draws up for the detectives investigating the murders, and Shepherd's corrective account, written after his wife's death (and prior to what the novel implies will be his own suicide). Both narratives are preoccupied with the problem of an authentically "national" English music, with the Big Bad in both cases being Germany and its composers. This quest for one true Englishness foreshadows the novel's other problems--to what extent can the arts (especially the musical arts) be interpreted as an expression of national identity, let alone personal problems? Contrariwise, to what extent do the arts emerge from only one muse, as it were? Shepherd initially bonds with Jessold over bouts of English folk-song collecting, which Shepherd invests with a racialized, post-Romantic aura of authenticity: "'Folk-songs have a biological appeal. We must shake off the dead hand of foreign influence'" (44). Shepherd, who does "not care for the pastoral itself" (25), is appropriately but ironically named: he fetishizes the oral culture of the countryside, which he captures, prints, and disseminates for more elite audiences, but England's rural spaces have little effect on him. Despite his attempt to literally naturalize folk-song ("biological appeal") as part and parcel of a pure English nationhood, he has no Wordsworthian affinity for nature. Moreover, his fantasy of English purity runs athwart of Jessold's skepticism, which discounts the need for a narrow, bordered nationalism--"'we are an Empire'," leaving aside the question of "'Great Britain'" (45)--and dismisses overtly nationalist arts as, effectively, kitschy cliches (45). Jessold's arguments owe something to the "True-Born Englishman" tradition, which insists on the country's cultural and ethnic heterogeneity; to be purely English is a contradiction in terms. Even Shepherd has to uneasily concede this problem: Handel and Mendelssohn, after all, can both be classed as an "honorary Englishman" (205), while, nearer home, his patron Lord Walmsley is an Anglicized (and Anglicanized) Lithuanian Jew, whose daughter (and Shepherd's wife) Miriam seems entirely English. Jessold's own supposed "English" masterpiece, the opera Little Musgrave, is sparked by an English folk-song and by a story about the (real) double murder committed by Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo and by his exposure to German experiments in atonality and, at least in some measure, by his own personal life. Cultural, personal, and national boundaries signally fail to converge.
In chasing after pure Englishness, then, Shepherd fails to pay attention to the permeability of artistic borders. But he also unwittingly engages in the same kind of reductivism that characterizes the sensationalist writing of his (sort-of) rival Banter, whose biography of Jessold relentlessly reads the composer's work "through the lens of the murders, and through that lens only" (244). Inconveniently for Shepherd, Banter was inspired by his own postmortem dissection of Jessold, which narrated "a chain of events that led directly from that evening at Hatton [when Shepherd told Jessold Gesualdo's story] to the murders" (219). (The Gesualdo story lands us in Pale Fire territory, as Kinbote claims to have done something similar to spark Shade's poem.) As little as Shepherd wants to admit it, both approaches define the plot of Jessold's life in terms of a single event: Banter retroactively diagnoses every composition as an expression of an essential personality flaw that ultimately manifests in the killings, whereas Shepherd begins from the end (much like the novel) and then seeks to reconstruct the narrative that produced it. Significantly, Shepherd's account centers himself--the turning point in Jessold's career, that is, is Shepherd's dramatic retelling of the Gesualdo murders (which, he fails to acknowledge, shares Banter's sensationalistic impulses). Both accounts assume that Jessold can, in fact, be explained; they are, for all intents and purposes, intended to reduce Jessold to some easily-digested soundbite, no longer enigmatic. The problem, as the reader no doubt expects, is that both authors only partially understand the man in question. Banter has almost no access to Jessold's private papers and letters; Shepherd doesn't know all the ins and outs of the actual composition of Little Musgrave (and much remains mysterious, even after he is somewhat enlightened). For that matter, the reader only partially understands the man in question. Not only does Shepherd withhold some extremely important information in the police memoir, but also it's impossible to locate the "real" Jessold in Shepherd's often self-serving tale.
In his afterword, Stace acknowledges that his novel addresses some of "the pitfalls of biographical criticism" (386), although he doesn't stipulate which ones he has in mind. Jessold, who will be done in by biographical criticism, instinctively understands its appeal, as the figure of "war poet" Josh Cradleless suggests. (The novel's website, appropriately enough, represents the fictional Jessold as a real composer.) One way of thinking about how biographical criticism, historicism, and "national character" (to use that once-popular phrase) play out in Charles Jessold are as forms of violence, both figurative and literal. The sound-bitism I described in my previous paragraph uses explanation to first contain, then displace the disruptive Jessold from polite English narratives of music history. The moment that Charles Jessold becomes "the murderer," he becomes essentially inaudible as a composer; Banter's true-crime narrative, for example, overwrites Jessold's compositions with the sounds of gunfire. Jessold's music, Shepherd complains, became "completely unrevivable" (247). Similarly, Shepherd's own obsession with the Englishness of English music turns out to be inseparable from Lord Walmsley's wartime propaganda. Both Banter and Jessold try to "pin" their subject, rather like a butterfly. There's a rather Wordsworthian "murder to dissect" vibe going on in the way in which both authors try to decompose Jessold and/or music in general.
Of course, there's the mystery of the murder itself, which leads me to some major spoilers (although I imagine that most of Charles Jessold's readers will figure out at least some of what's what relatively early on). Head below the fold.
Between Shepherd's very obvious unreliability and the existence of two narratives about the novel's core events, most readers will guess quickly enough that the murder scene is not quite what it seems. One of the novel's running gags is about Jessold's interest in using Thomas DeQuincey's On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts--the source for the novel's title--for songs, to which Shepherd objects. Shepherd himself, a midrange critic whose primary qualification is being married to his employer's daughter, himself yearns to create a major work of art. But before he does that, he creates Jessold: he "puffs" Jessold's work, introduces him to the right people, points him to the right competitions...and facilitates Jessold's affair with his wife, Miriam. (More about that in a moment.) Given the residual Romanticism that keeps cropping up in this novel, it's perhaps no surprise that Shepherd tries to play Victor Frankenstein to Jessold's Creature, with equally unimpressive results. Like Victor (and any number of Victor's descendants), Shepherd has a difficult time dealing with Jessold's agency; eventually, Jessold simply escapes Shepherd's control, and runs ravening through German atonality. But he also escapes Shepherd's artistic ambitions. He isn't writing an essentially English opera; more to the point, he isn't really using Shepherd's libretto for the opera (although it's a springboard). Shepherding is actually what Shepherd signally fails to do.
Shepherd's failed artistry (his books mostly go nowhere, his criticism is ephemeral, and his libretto is unused) turns out to correlate with something straight out of Middlemarch: his disinterest in sex--or, at least, in sex with women. "The thought of sexual intimacy was particularly distasteful," Shepherd sighs, "and I could not coax my energy in that direction" (300). This lack of interest in sex extends to reproduction (364), prefiguring his own inability to write anything that lasts. (Norman Lebrecht dubs him an "impotent witness," which he certainly is in more than one way.) Miriam, whom he plagiarizes for his columns (299), becomes the erotic go-between between himself and Jessold. And that's straight out of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Although Shepherd's jealousy when Jessold befriends other men is quite clear in the first narrative, the second narrative more overtly casts the relationship between narrator and narratee in terms of a distinctly one-sided romance. When Shepherd detects Jessold's interest in Miriam, he is thrilled, for "I saw in a flash that Miriam could provide Jessold with what I never could, and in doing so that she and I were working in concert and harmony" (305). This musical metaphor is deeply ironic, because Shepherd's ear for music turns out to be quite problematic. In any event, this "harmony," which Shepherd uses again on the next page, suggests a complementary mode of seduction, in which Miriam provides the erotic body and Shepherd the erotic mind; when Shepherd listens to Jessold playing the piano, he "surrender[s]" to the music, almost sexually (306). Later, when he thinks that Miriam may be in bed with Jessold, he is tantalized by "[u]nexpected fantasies" and a "quiet thrill" (318), and soon after, with some degree of self-mockery, imagines himself as Jessold's "courtly lover" (320). And if the reader is failing to get the idea, Jessold finally declares himself: "In giving her to him, did he not also become mine?" (323) (Harmony, an increasingly loaded word, crops up again at this point.)
Both Shepherd's dream of himself as Jessold's knight in shining armor and his possessiveness (that "mine" is pretty blunt) conceal his real desire, which is to reproduce with Jessold. (The underlying eroticism becomes clearer when he experiences "an odd vicarious jealousy"  while spying on Jessold as he kisses Victoria.) That is: the opera, Little Musgrave, is to be their figurative "child," even though Jessold is, for lack of a better word, committing aesthetic adultery (with the Germans, with one of Shepherd's rivals...). The revelation that the excerpts Jessold has been playing for Miriam are, in fact, all lifted from other composers sparks the fury of a spurned lover. But Jessold's cavalier treatment of Shepherd over Little Musgrave turns out to have a much more brutal parallel: while watching the opera being rehearsed prior to opening night, Miriam tells Shepherd that Jessold had impregnated her and then demanded she have "'a procedure'" (364). (This is all the more cruel because Jessold later has no problem fathering Victoria's child.) Even after this revelation, Shepherd manages to feel some pleasure in being identified with the murdering husband, Lord Barnard, because "Jessold had also seen himself in Barnard" (365)--the closest the two of them are ever going to get to erotic resolution. Not that this lasts for long. Shepherd and Miriam, both Jessold's elders, had assumed themselves the dominant players in their seduction narrative; instead, they find that Jessold spurns them as mother or father for his children, literal and figurative. There is no future here. Shepherd has been trying to write Jessold into his own narrative of English culture, and instead discovers that Jessold, in turn, has been writing them out of a very different story.
Which leads us back to the murders which open the novel. Appropriately enough, Shepherd and Miriam jointly commit what turns out to be triple homicide: Miriam, out to murder the by-now alcoholic Shepherd, poisons the whiskey that Victoria and her lover Manville drink instead; as a cover-up, Shepherd shoots Jessold (somebody had to, by this point...) and then stages the shooting deaths of the other two, using the literal Chekhov's Gun he had providentially discovered near the beginning of the novel. (This is so calculated that one suspects a narrative joke.) And it is this that turns out to be Shepherd's crowning artistic achievement, his flawless transformation of the ugliest materials imaginable into an overpowering narrative that will crush all the others. "The first time I met Jessold I had told him the story of Carlo Gesualdo," Shepherd informs us; "Tonight, I told the story again without words, by tableau" (372). Shepherd, who has only partial success in making Jessold, is all too successful at unmaking him. (Perhaps it's Shepherd who is Frankenstein's Creature; like the Creature, he can generate nothing except death.) The "biographical" reading of Jessold's life turns out to be the effect of Shepherd shoehorning bodies into the right story, sound and fury signifying quite the wrong thing. Shepherd's one lasting work, then, turns out to be killing not only Jessold, but also his music (now "unrevivable," in more than one sense). The creative artist--who, after all, can father children of both kinds--is turned into an aesthetically sterilized destroyer, leaving Shepherd, his hearing permanently damaged by his proximity to the gun, to serve as an "obituarist" for his now-deceased "world of music" (195). In killing Jessold, Shepherd inadvertently consigns himself to history.
Preparing to commit suicide, Shepherd imagines a reviewer sneering that he has, once again, put himself "'at the very centre of the story,'" to which Shepherd responds, "is not the man who puts himself aside for art, for greatness, for posterity, for his wife...is not he also a tragic hero?" (384). Conceding the criticism, Shepherd nevertheless yearns to rehabilitate himself as suitable for the starring role of Jessold's art in his own right. In the end, his life of failures and minor successes becomes a grand drama of selfless renunciation...or so he tells himself. He quotes the folksong that started it all, openly adopting the position of Lord Barnard. Even in his final lines--"For Miriam Shepherd" (384)--we see Shepherd still fantasizing about somehow achieving posthumous union with both beloveds, for in naming his wife, he also evokes the dedication of Jessold's first success. In a sense, he tries to guide his readers to their own "right" biographical reading of his role, hanging on to the fantasy that such a thing is possible. As for his success...well, who has ever heard the opera Little Musgrave, supposedly getting its belated premiere just weeks after Shepherd's death?