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The Deptford Trilogy: Fifth Business; The Manticore; World of Wonders Paperback – October 1, 1990

4.4 out of 5 stars 110 customer reviews

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"Who killed Boy Staunton?"

This is the question that lies at the heart of Robertson Davies's elegant trilogy comprising Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders. Indeed, Staunton's death is the central event of each of the three novels, and Rashomon-style, each circles round to view it from a different perspective. In the first book, Fifth Business, Davies introduces us to Dunstan Ramsey and his "lifelong friend and enemy, Percy Boyd Staunton," both aged 10. It is a winter evening in the small Canadian village of Deptford, and Ramsey and Boy have quarreled. In a rage, Boy throws a snowball with a stone in it, misses his friend and hits the Baptist minister's pregnant wife by mistake. She becomes hysterical and later that night delivers her child prematurely, a baby with birth defects. Even worse, she loses her mind. The snowball, the stone, the deformed baby christened Paul Dempster--this is the secret guilt that will bind Ramsey and Staunton together through their long lives:

I was perfectly sure, you see, that the birth of Paul Dempster, so small, so feeble, and troublesome, was my fault. If I had not been so clever, so sly, so spiteful in hopping in front of the Dempsters just as Percy Boyd Staunton threw that snowball at me from behind, Mrs. Dempster would not have been struck. Did I never think that Percy was guilty? Indeed I did.
Boy, however, "would fight, lie, do anything rather than admit" he feels guilty, too, and so the subject remains unresolved between them right up until the night Boy's body is found in his car, in a lake, with a stone in his mouth. The second novel, The Manticore, follows Staunton's son, David, through a course of Jungian therapy in Switzerland, while World of Wonders concentrates on Magnus Eisengrim, a renowned magician and hypnotist with ties to both Ramsey and Boy Staunton.

When it came to writing, three was Davies's favorite number. Before the Deptford books, he wrote The Salterton Trilogy (Tempest-Tost, Leaven of Malice, A Mixture of Frailties), and after it came The Cornish Trilogy (The Rebel Angels, What's Bred in the Bone, The Lyre of Orpheus). Excellent as these and Davies's other novels are, The Deptford Trilogy is arguably the masterpiece for which he'll best be remembered, as the combination of magic, archetype, and good, old-fashioned human frailty at work in these novels is a world of wonders unto itself, and guarantees these three books a permanent place among the great books of our time. --Alix Wilber


A series of three novels by Robertson Davies, consisting of Fifth Business (1970), The Manticore (1972), and World of Wonders (1975). Throughout the trilogy, Davies interweaves moral concerns and bits of arcane lore. The novels trace the lives of three men from the small town of Deptford, Ont., connected and transformed by a single childhood event: Percy "Boy" Staunton throws a snowball containing a stone at Dunstable (later Dunstan) Ramsay. Ramsay dodges the snowball and it hits Mary Dempster, who gives birth prematurely to a son, Paul, and slides into dementia. Fifth Business is an autobiographical letter written by Dunstan upon his retirement as headmaster of a boys' school; he has been tormented by guilt throughout his life. Boy Staunton lies at the bottom of Lake Ontario at the opening of The Manticore; the stone that hit Mrs. Dempster some 60 years earlier is found in his mouth. Much of the book describes the course of Jungian analysis undertaken by Boy's son David. World of Wonders tells the story of Paul Dempster. Kidnapped as a boy by a magician, he learns the trade and eventually becomes Magnus Eisengrim, one of the most successful acts on the European continent. -- The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Deptford Trilogy
  • Paperback: 825 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Revised ed. edition (October 1, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140147551
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140147551
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 1.4 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (110 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #40,690 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
If there is a boundary beyond which realistic fiction crosses into the fantastical, it seems to have been explored and even blurred by Robertson Davies in this trio of novels which represent the broadest imaginative range of realistic fiction. The closest contemporary comparison I can make is John Barth, but Davies, possibly by way of being Canadian, establishes his originality by balancing North American folk charm with a British style of sophistication.
The subject is the turbulent and often hilarious lives of three men whose hometown is the rural village of Deptford, Ontario. They are Dunstan Ramsay, a history teacher, hagiographer (somebody who studies saints and sainthood), and decorated World War I veteran; the arrogant but vulnerable Percy Boyd "Boy" Staunton, a wealthy confectionery businessman, politician, and Dunstan's lifelong friend; and the pitiable Paul Dempster, whose premature birth was precipitated by his mother's injury from being hit accidentally by a snowball thrown by Staunton at Ramsay on a fateful winter day in 1908. The event that provides the basis for the trilogy is Staunton's death sixty years later, when his Cadillac mysteriously plunges off a pier into a harbor.
The three novels form a complex story that is structured almost like a murder mystery but has much more psychological depth and detailed characterization and is more studious of the nature of consequences.
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Format: Paperback
When I lived in London, a friend stongly urged me to read Davies. "Which trilogy? Cornish or Deptford?" I had heard those were his best novels. "Cornish" she replied.
I finished the Cornish trilogy, loved it, and moved into Deptford. I finished World of Wonders last night, and have some thoughts.
I enjoy each of Davies' novels as I read them, but their full impact seems to hit me several days after finishing them. After reading the Cornish trilogy, with it's baroque styles and encyclopedic references, Deptford seemed a little...thin. Almost minimalist in it's scope. ["Minimalist" is a relative term here--we are talking about Robertson Davies, after all.]
But now that I have finished World of Wonders, I find that I prefer its mystery, its sense of what is not said. The sense of myth that runs through the characters' lives. In a word, haunting.
The Cornish trilogy is a wonderful series of yarns. Highly entertaining, as is seems few books are. But Deptford forces the reader to do more work: to think, investigate, contemplate what has happened in the novels.
Both trilogies are stunning achievements, but I prefer doing investigative work rather than being entertained (although what an entertainment!).
Final thought: Unlike the overrated Umberto Eco, who writes fiction like an academic, Davies is able to create erudite, learned characters who are interesting people, rather than mouthpieces that demonstrate their author's wide field of knowledge. Davies' erudition serves the characters, the story and the reader. Eco's expositions only serve his ego.
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Format: Paperback
I had read some Robertson Davies in the past--Murther and Walking Spirits and The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks--and thought him a fine curmudgeon and a fine Canadian writer, but I had not given him much thought beyond this. I find this to my detriment now, for I remember friends who always had a copy of one or other of his novels about, and I faintly recall many recommendations in the past. So, what made me finally pick up one of these and read it? The recommendation, passed to me second-hand, by my favorite writer, Jonathan Carroll, given as one of his influences for conceiving novels with interlinking characters.
Fifth Business is a marvelous book, and while it doesn't have quite the same mystery or horror of Carroll, it does have an excellent style, and there is indeed a twist or two along the way to keep most any reader sated. Basically the autobiography of Dunstable Ramsay, born around the turn of the century in the small Canadian town of Deptford, Fifth Business details not only Ramsay's life, but also the life of his oldest friend, Percy "Boy" Staunton. What makes this novel so remarkable is how realistic the portrayal is, without bogging down in pages of mundane description. Over the course of the novel, one's understanding for Dunstable grows, both in positive and negative turns, and by the end, he is as an old friend of one's own.
Based on some of the cover blurbs, I had expected a little more magic realism, or at least an edge of the fantastic, to this book, and while it may be there, it is consistently down-played. Normally I am not one to go in for fiction without at least a feeling of the extraordinary, but Davies writing style kept me glued to the page, reading longer into the night than I would ordinarily wish during the work week.
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