We gave it an A-
University writing programs, currently mass-producing nearly identical models of pallid young writers, might do something useful if they simply devoted themselves to the study of Robertson Davies. Course offerings might include Theory and Practice of Eccentricity, Advanced Curmudgeonry, Unorthodox Religious Thought, Comic Possibilities of Jung’s Psychology, Sex Secrets of the Canadians, and Introductory Good Conversation. But then you can take a short course in all of these subjects just by reading one of Davies’ splendid novels, such as Fifth Business, What’s Bred in the Bone, The Rebel Angels, or this one, Murther & Walking Spirits , published in his 78th year. It has all the usual Davies ingredients — irascible wisdom, mischievous humor, and the stubborn individuality of both characters and author. The difference is that it’s a more personal book: The story, in which the narrator is murdered on the first page and has to make his way through the rest of the novel as a modest, unspooky ghost, is not really a murder story nor a ghost story but a gathering of ancestors — ostensibly the narrator’s, but presumably a close approximation of Davies’ own.
The narrator, Connor Gilmartin, an entertainment editor for a Toronto newspaper, returns home to find his wife, Esme, in bed with the paper’s – theater critic, Randal Allard Going. A dandified snob who carries a walking stick, Going is known to his scornful colleagues as the Sniffer because in his reviews of plays he is always sensing, detecting, or sniffing influences, usually English. When Gilmartin exclaims to his naked wife, ”My God, Esme, not the Sniffer?” the offended critic jumps out of bed, unscrews the cudgel concealed in his walking stick, and kills Gilmartin with a blow. And then, realizing what he has done, goes to pieces. The unshaken Esme coolly sends him away and concocts a mysterious-intruder story for the police. Our narrator- ghost is naturally vengeful but finds he isn’t much good at haunting and ends up merely following the Sniffer to a film festival.
Gilmartin’s ghost gradually realizes that the uncannily realistic movies he is seeing are not the classics that the Sniffer is watching but scenes from the lives of his own ancestors. Dutch Tories fleeing persecution in New York for British Canada after the Revolution, a potboy in a crude 18th-century Welsh inn who escapes the blasphemous curses of its half-savage occupants for a life of Methodist probity, and so on up through Victorian Ontario and a glimpse of his father fighting in Italy during World War II. The evocation of 18th-century New York and the ordeal of travel up the Hudson is especially pungent. Some of the later Ontario scenes are too fragmentary to work well, but all these slices of the past are enlivened by Davies’ characteristically provocative reflections and digressions. On journalists (”apart from policemen, they are the most sentimental people you will meet anywhere”); on the short stature, bad teeth, and questionable aromas of 18th-century humanity; on reality’s favorite genres: ”Theorists of the drama may deal in tragedy and comedy, but the realities of life are played more often in the mode of melodrama, farce, and grotesquerie.”
And so it is in this novel, which eventually returns to the farcical scene of the crime, where the Sniffer botches his repentance and Esme falls into the clutches of a Hollywoodized book agent. Still, amid all the commotion the dominant note here is tenderness. Davies has always been good at taking people just as they are. Here it is his own flesh and blood that earns this unflattering but moving tribute. A-