Murther & Walking Spirits

by Robertson Davies

Hardcover, 1991




New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Viking, 1991.


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.

Media reviews

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.
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"Mr. Davies is a tremendously enticing storyteller, whether his characters are cajoling in Welsh brogue or portaging a canoe through the northern wilderness ..."

User reviews

LibraryThing member literarytiger
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member Griff
The first chapter drew me in quickly, but then the book took a left turn that I wasn't expecting. As the history of a family and country play out during the personal film festival of Connor Gilmartin, I was taken with many of the vignettes, however the sum of the parts was not as satisfying as I
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had hoped. An accompanying family tree may have helped at points along the way, but then again, following the generations in such a linear fashion may miss the point.

This is only my second book by Davies, having read Fifth Business previously. I did not enjoy this book nearly as much that forst book in the Deptford Trilogy- and need to get back to completing that trio soon. After that, I have a feeling I will come away more impressed with Davies' work than I am with Murther & Walking Spirits.
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LibraryThing member michaelbartley
I really enjoy reading robertson davies, in this book he explores how history and religion shape who we are
LibraryThing member yooperprof
Platitudinous. I had a hard time finishing this one. This was the next to last novel Davies published - he was 78 when it came out, in 1991. Unfortunately, I think that may have something to do with the "gassiness" of much of the writing here.
LibraryThing member ragwaine
Mix Grapes of Wrath with some comedy. Tragic lives wasted and destroyed. Interesting history but kind of boring and confusing with too many characters.
LibraryThing member nicole_a_davis
The first paragraph is so exciting! Full of promise for an adventurous novel. But what a snooze follows. The philosophical and metaphysical ideas on death were interesting, but the plot was nonexistant and the characters were hard to get to know.
LibraryThing member yooperprof
Platitudinous. I had a hard time finishing this one. This was the next to last novel Davies published - he was 78 when it came out, in 1991. Unfortunately, I think that may have something to do with the "gassiness" of much of the writing here.
LibraryThing member isabelx
As McWearie used to say, 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.

Having been murdered by his wife's lover in the first sentence of the book, Connor 'Gil' Gilmartin
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becomes a ghost, the walking spirit of the title. In life he was an editor at a Toronto newspaper, and he is murdered by the paper's theatre reviewer, and in death he finds himself sitting next to his murderer at a film festival, but he isn't watching the same films as the rest of the audience. Instead, he sees the stories of some of his ancestors, in Europe and North America, complete with voice-overs, montages and split screen effects, just like a real movie.

Gil sees how his ancestors' experiences, including religion (he comes from a long line of Methodists), bankruptcies, unhappy marriages and manipulative parents have shaped his paternal relatives and himself, but there isn't a strong plot to tie the stories together, and after a strong start in 18th century New York, they seem to become less and less interesting. The ending feels somewhat flat, with no explanation about why Gil has been shown these particular ancestors' stories, or big revelation about what will happen to him next. Not one of my favourites by this author.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
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
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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."
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LibraryThing member busterrll
Fantastical great!



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