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Murther and Walking Spirits (1991)

by Robertson Davies

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Unfinished Trilogy (1)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
1,0571513,439 (3.7)1 / 56
Connor Gilmartin's inauspicious, but much beloved, mortal life comes to an untimely end when he discovers his wife in bed with one of his more ludicrous associates, Randall Allard Going. Death becomes a bit complicated when Gilmartin's out-of-body experience stays an out-of-body experience. Enraged at being so unceremoniously cut down, he avenges himself against his now panic-stricken murderer.… (more)
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  2. 00
    Instances of the Number 3 by Salley Vickers (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: In both novels a man who has died comes back to review his life.
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    Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson (smithal)

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English (14)  Spanish (1)  All languages (15)
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
The novel begins with the death of its narrator, Connor Gilmartin, who walks in on his wife and her lover, and gets coshed with a weighted walking stick for his indiscretion. Adding insult to injury, the lover was a newspaper colleague Gil contemptuously referred to as "the Sniffer", a man seemingly possessed of no personal magnetism or uncommon sexual appeal whatsoever. Furthermore, as the murder is officially attributed to an unidentified intruder, the Sniffer gets away with it. Gil finds himself in an odd sort of limbo in which he must accompany his murderer to a film festival for several days, viewing a rather different sort of cinema than the classics being shown to the Sniffer and everyone else. As generations of family history unfold on the screen, both Gil and the reader learn a great deal about American and Canadian history that aren't well-covered in the textbooks. He finds himself to be descended from Loyalists who fled the colonies of North America to settle in Canada at the time of the American Revolution. This works well as straight historical fiction, and if Davies had left out the frame he still would have had a fine novel. But naturally, the point of all this is for Gil to come to a fuller understanding of who he was, and what meaning his life may have had. At one point, Gil observes "It is merciful of Whatever or Whoever is directing my existence at this moment to show the past as a work of art, for it was as a work of art that I tried to understand life, while I had life, and much of my indignation at the manner of my death is its want of artistic form, dimension, emotional weight, dignity." ( )
  laytonwoman3rd | Jan 31, 2017 |
"I was never so amazed in my life as when the Sniffer drew his concealed weapon from its case and struck me to the ground, stone dead."

Gil Gilmartin walked in on his wife and her lover who whacked Gilmartin with a weapon concealed in his walking stick, killing him instantly. Gilmartin immediately realizes he is dead yet able to watch, unseen, as his wife and the lover, Allard Going, nicknamed the Sniffer, try to cover up the murder. Then, after this excellent opening, the story goes in a different direction. Gilmartin, like Going, is a newspaper film critic and follows Going to a film festival only to find his viewing is different from any other. His films detail his ancestors from the American Revolution to modern times. It is an examination of how Gilmartin - or Davies, as the film is said to have closely followed Davies' own origins - came to be the person he is - or was, in this case.

As a perusal of personal history, it must have been fascinating for Davies, but while I found some parts quite interesting, other sections were less so. Reading slowed, interest lagged. However, the ending was perfect. The lineage continues and the pretentious Sniffer receives fitting justice. Entertaining, but this turned out to be my least favourite from Davies. ( )
  VivienneR | May 30, 2016 |
I'm glad I'd read most of Robertson Davies' earlier work before reading this one, his next to last, not only because it isn't up to them but also because my familiarity with Davies allowed me to recognize some familiar topics and themes that wouldn't be obvious to someone who read this as his or her first Davies. Briefly, and this is no spoiler because it takes place on the first page, Connor Gilmartin is killed by "the Sniffer," aka Randal Allard Going, when he, Gilmartin, finds Allard Going (as he insists on being called) in bed with his wife Esme. His reaction, "My God, Esme, not the Sniffer," seems to be what spurs the Sniffer to pull the cosh out of his walking stick and hit Gilmartin with it, killing him. But, despite being dead, Gilmartin lives on as, presumably, his ghost.

After delightful scenes when the police arrive and at Gilmartin's funeral, the novel changes its focus from the delicious conceit of the ghost observing the man who killed him. As the ghost is determined to follow Going and make his life miserable, he follows him to a film festival that Going, as the film critic for the local newspaper (Gilmartin had been the entertainment editor) is attending. But instead of seeing the obscure and art movies that are being shown, the ghost of Gilmartin sees "films" that he gradually realizes portray the lives of his ancestors, from a plucky Dutch woman fleeing post-revolutionary New York by canoe to a Wesleyan preacher in Wales to struggling Welsh tailors who come to Canada to seek their fortunes, one as a builder, others in other fields, right up to his own father, a literature professor. Many of them experience bankruptcy or alcoholism; others are rigid and religion-bound, repress their sexuality, and can't express their love; others are deceptive in various ways. All this is eye-opening for Gilmartin (if ghosts have eyes to open); he quotes his friend McWearie, the newspaper's religion reporter, as saying "one's family is made up of supporting players in one's personal drama. One never supposes that they starred in some possibly gaudy and certainly deeply felt show of their own." Later he notes:

"How many children are doomed before they make their entrance into this world to live with fear that lies so deep that they do not recognize it for what it is, having never known anything else? Ghosts cannot weep, or I would weep at what I know now when knowledge comes too late." p. 205

When the film festival ends, so does the ghost of Gilmartin's personal film festival, and the ghost sees, after the familiar "The End," an additional sign that says "Nothing is finished until all is finished." There then remain some scenes with Esme, the Sniffer, McWearie, and various other characters.

The film-told story of Gilmartin's ancestors' lives allows Davies to play with many of his familiar themes -- history, theater, psychology, metaphysics, literature and poetry, journalism, art, deception -- and to use his skills as a story-teller and a satirist with a keen eye for our human foibles and pretensions. All of this made the book worth reading. But, for me, it seemed a little disjointed: it didn't quite hang together as a novel, and there were parts of it that bordered on the tedious. Despite this disappointment, I will eventually get around to reading Davies' last novel, The Cunning Man.
2 vote rebeccanyc | Aug 17, 2013 |
I marvel at what a great wordsmith Robertson Davies was. It isn't often that I have to resort to a dictionary to look up a word but I had to with this passage:
Commodes, chastely concealing a chamber-pot for use in a lady's bedroom, might have quite a Gothic air about them, so that the infrequent pleasure of defecation- - the displacement of the Victorian female tappen- - was enhanced by a sense of historical continuity.

(A tappen is an obstruction, or indigestible mass, found in the intestines of bears and other animals during hibernation. Also referred to as a "rectal plug." They make it difficult for the animal to defecate during hibernation, but are often passed with great pain in the spring time.per Wikipedia)

Now I suppose the mark of a great writer isn't that they use obscure words but what makes Davies great is that he uses those words so precisely that you can't imagine any other wording. Tappen sounds so much more refined than rectal plug which is exactly what those using the Victorian commodes would want.

Anyway, I digress. The book is about the afterlife of Connor Gilmartin, a journalist and head of the Arts department of a Toronto newspaper, who was dispatched by his wife's lover when he discovered them in flagrante in his bedroom. The lover, nicknamed the Sniffer, wasn't so much concerned about being discovered as by the use of his nickname when Gilmartin utters these last words "Oh Esme, not the Sniffer." Gilmartin is somewhat surprised at being able to see and hear everything even though he is most definitely dead. He watches his wife shoo off the Sniffer and then call the police. He attends his own funeral. Then he decides to accompany the Sniffer while he is covering a festival of old movies. While the Sniffer is watching oldie goldies Gilmartin views movies that are more personal. He sees his ancestors as if they were actors in a movie and learns to understand more about them and what went into his making. Although his life was cut short it is safe to say that he will prosper in his afterlife because of what he learns. The Sniffer, on the other hand, finds no surcease from the guilt he feels as a murderer.

An excellent book and I think anyone with roots going back several generations in this country will be able to relate to it as an historical novel. Those who want to dig deeper will find much to ponder. ( )
  gypsysmom | Oct 4, 2012 |
This is an interesting book which promises one thing on the back cover but actually delivers something quite different. I had expected a humorous take from a murdered man (Gil) who is forced to spend the afterlife with his murderer at a film festival, but what we get is a rambling history of Gil's ancestry, from Revolutionary America, to Wales, to Canada, laced with musings on metaphysics, religion, success and failure, family dynamics and the all encompassing personal 'hero-fight' which every person undertakes in their own life.

It was an odd combination. I enjoyed the poetry and erudition of the musings, although there were times it seemed to bog down the narrative. The stories of the various characters in history ranged from fascinating through to really not very interesting at all. I am not sure it hung together very well and although I smiled at Gil's attempt to get through to his wife via the medium, the ending felt a little disjointed. My overall impression was that the purpose of the book was to discuss and illustrate the fact that each life is composed of a personal struggle where other people play bit parts, cameos or roles but never really understand the nature of the personal struggle which is going on within. This is the inevitable part of life. It takes death and a journey through his past for Gil to understand it, but most other people don't. ( )
2 vote literarytiger | Sep 6, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
En près de quatre cents pages, Robertson Davies traverse deux siècles d'une Histoire mouvementée, qui prend parfois des allures de western. Le romancier américain John Irving espère qu'on décernera le prix Nobel à ce fringant octogénaire, encore trop méconnu en France.
added by Ariane65 | editLire, Pascale Frey (Nov 1, 1995)
"Mr. Davies is a tremendously enticing storyteller, whether his characters are cajoling in Welsh brogue or portaging a canoe through the northern wilderness ..."
added by GYKM | editNew York Times, Anthony Bailey (Nov 17, 1991)

» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Robertson Daviesprimary authorall editionscalculated
BascoveCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Guidall, GeorgeNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Les imprimeurs savent d'expérience qu'un meurtre vaut deux monstres et au moins trois esprits errants. Car le meurtre condiuit à la pendaison dont la populace est merveilleusement friande. Mais nul récit n'égalera jamais celui qui réunit meurtres et esprits errants.

Samuel Butler

To Brenda
First words
I was never so amazed in my life as when the Sniffer drew his concealed weapon from its case and struck me to the ground, stone dead.
She did not strongly want a husband and children, but she very strongly wanted not to be an Old Maid.
Coleridge was perhaps the most celebrated of all drinkers of laudanum, and splendid studies have been written of its influence on his Muse. Nobody seems to have paid attention to its influence on his bowels, for laudanum was a rare constipator. How much of The Ancient Mariner was the result of intestinal stasis?
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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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