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“Should I have taken the false teeth?” Thus, the curt opening of The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies, typical of Canada's foremost man of letters, professor of English, and author of three brilliant trilogies telling stories about the odd ways in which people behave. The speaker is Dr Jonathan Hullah, Toronto physician and sometime police surgeon, whose reminiscences are prompted by the sudden death of his old friend, the saintly Father Ninian Hobbes, while celebrating Good Friday mass at St Aidan's church. The question will be answered only after 400-odd pages of what could be called a detective story, but a seasoned reader will know that there will be diversions into any topic that takes the fancy, as well as interesting if not eccentric characters and many quotable one-liners.
When young Hullah nearly died from scarlet fever; he reckoned his life was saved by Elsie Smoke, a native American who set up her tepee in his garden and whose secrets he tried to fathom. He was a precocious lad and a Freudian fanatic as a medical student until a teacher said the theories were only “a flash in the bedpan.” His favourite bedside reading was Thomas Browne's Religio Medici which, he said, “brought a sweet humanism to the gross materialism of much medical information.” In Europe as a medical officer in the 1939-45 war, he was put in charge of a ward in an Oxford hospital containing 26 shell shocked victims of friendly fire: “They talked, I listened for an hour three times a week.” In the bookshop Blackwells he came across an anthology of poems called The Reader's Companion and used it to take their minds off their misfortunes and restore their optimism in the future. He reckoned this therapy was a great success, but the top brass were less enthusiastic.
Back in Toronto, Hullah converted a barn near St Aidan's into a consulting room and embarked on what he called a type of psychosomatic medicine where mind and body mingle and “untangling the relationship is the Devil's own work.” When you carry out a comprehensive examination, he says, you must be alert to the demeanour, tone of voice, and even the smell of the patient; you will not really know them until you have seen them in their own home. Obvious physical disease does not exempt you from a duty to relieve the grievances and raw deals that dog people's lives. Outcomes, successful or otherwise, are illustrated by a series of case histories, but because of his diagnostic skills he came to be known as the Cunning Man, after the wise man that “used to be found in every English village.”
By Robertson Davies
First published by Viking in 1994; reprinted by Penguin, 1996