Nabokovian cunning distinguishes this energetic third novel from the British-born author of well-received historical fiction (by George, 2007, etc.), who leads another artistic life as popular singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding.
An homage to the Russian-American master appears in the figure of the narrator, musicologist-critic Leslie Shepherd, whose fussy mentoring of the eponymous 20th-century composer Charles Jessold echoes the parasitic devotion of narrator Charles Kinbote to elusive genius John Shade, in Nabokov’s ineffably intricate novel Pale Fire. Shepherd is likewise a narrator; in fact, he’s two of them, as Stace treats us to Shepherd’s account, written for the police, of the crime referred to in the novel’s title. For Jessold, on the eve of the premiere of his opera Little Musgrave (based on a lurid folk tale), killed his wife and her lover, then took his own life—essentially repeating the notorious act of his near-namesake, Italian Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo (a real historical figure). Then, after reporting thus to the proper authorities, Shepherd undertakes a second narrative, revealing What Really Happened. Suspense is cleverly maintained throughout, and a wealth of detail about the 20th-century folk-music revival in England is nicely contrasted with the rise of modernist music, anathema itself to the fastidious Shepherd (a stuffy comic character whom P.G. Wodehouse might have been proud to create). Stace knows all these territories intimately and peppers the narrative with guest appearances by historical composers (e.g., Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arnold Schkenberg), even offering a glimpse of a fictional one: Adrian Leverkuhn, the antihero of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. This yeasty tale can perhaps be faulted for a few too many lame jokes and a surfeit of ostentatious wordplay. But it dances at a sprightly pace, and few readers will regret being told the same tale twice, especially when it’s as frisky and entertaining as this one/these two.
Stace’s versatility makes this one just about irresistible.