Years Ago My Super Cool Aunt visited an old friend in Denver. I was still living in Boulder at the time, so I went down to take the ladies to lunch. Lottie really wanted to go to the Tattered Cover bookstore — one of the big, independent stores that has a huge variety of books. She wanted something to read on her travels.
“I’ll be right back,” I told her as she was perusing the stacks. Sure enough, they had what I was looking for, so I grabbed a copy, found my aunt, and handed it to her. She raised an eyebrow at the thickness. “It’s a trilogy,” I said. “Trust me.”
She bought it, and a few days later she called me to say two words: “Damn you!” She couldn’t put it down.
I don’t remember how I found the Canadian author Robertson Davies (1913–1995), but he quickly became (and still is) my favorite author. It’s not just that he tells a good story (and he does), or that he’s simply a fantastic writer with exquisite command of the English language (he was), but he wandered very convincingly through Jungian psychology, medical diagnostics, art forgery, illusions (magic), the art of the luthier, and more …and more …and more.
Davies is not just entertaining, his work is interesting and thought-provoking. A true master.
He mostly wrote in trilogies. What was a minor character in one book becomes the narrator of the second, and an ancestor of the third.
The one I suggested to Lottie was The Deptford Trilogy (Amazon links *), his most famous. The first book of the three, Fifth Business (1970), was originally a lackluster seller in Canada, but when it hit the U.S. it caused a sensation.
It was a New York Times best-seller, then featured by both the Book of the Month Club and the Literary Guild, which gave him great leverage with his Canadian publishers. It was followed by The Manticore in 1972 and World of Wonders in 1975 to complete the trilogy.
One of his books grabbed me as soon as I opened to Page 1: the protagonist dies in the first sentence …and the book moves forward from there, telling what happens to the guy afterward.
That one, Murther and Walking Spirits (1991), was the first book in what was to be Davies’ final trilogy, which some have dubbed The Toronto Trilogy, but he died a year or so after the second book in that series, The Cunning Man (1994), was published, and was still researching and plotting the third. I would have loved to read how he tied the stories all together.
Previous to Deptford was The Salterton Trilogy (Tempest-Tost, 1951; Leaven of Malice, 1954; and A Mixture of Frailties, 1958). After Deptford was The Cornish Trilogy (The Rebel Angels, 1981; What’s Bred in the Bone, 1985; and The Lyre of Orpheus, 1988.)
Note that since they all have been out for quite some time you can almost always find good-condition used copies for a reasonable price. Check at a good used bookstore if you are lucky enough to have one near you, or look for the hard-to-spot “## used from $1.20” links on each book’s page on Amazon.
I’ve read all of these at least once (Deptford at least twice), and this is why I thought to write about my love for Robertson Davies’ work today: I have had an itch to put down business books for awhile and dive into fiction; I’m about to start reading them all again.
Yeah, they’re that good.
My aunt died in 2011, at 90. I hope she got to more of Davies’ books before then.
October 2022 Update
I’ve finished all the trilogies, finishing with Murther and Walking Spirits, his second-to-last. If you were to read only one of his books, that’s the one: it’s absolutely fantastic. Deptford Trilogy is the best trilogy, with a trigger warning: reading it again reminded me that one of its books includes ongoing sexual abuse, and how its victim overcame it. (And maybe got his revenge? That conclusion is left up to the reader.)
Next is his collection of short stories, High Spirits, ghost stories that he told to his students around Halloween. And hey, it’s October…!
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