Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. Copyright 1970. Fiction. ISBN 0141186151.
Dunstan Ramsay, retiring from his long-held position as a history professor of Colborne College, writes a letter to the headmaster, wishing to set a few matters straight. The entire book is told in the form of this letter. What follows is a strange account of a life that encompasses war, saints, illusions, and unintended consequences that leads up to the ultimate question of, “Who killed Boy Staunton?”
Style and Plot:
Although it is called a mystery, if you consider the book as a standalone, then the term can only be applied in the loosest sense. This book is about the life of Dunstan Ramsay and the people he encounters in it, which is part of a set-up to the aforementioned question that the entire trilogy encompasses. If you go into the book expecting a crime thriller, you will be sorely disappointed.
The style Fifth Business is written in is unlike most books. The reader is being told a story, rather than being part of it, but Robertson Davies’ command of the written word does not leave the reader feeling disjointed and separate from the story. Imagine listening to your grandfather recounting tales, and you will come close to the feel of Fifth Business. The book cannot accurately be described as suspenseful, but it is absolutely engaging and compelling. Davies has created in Ramsay a straight-forward and wry professor with a tale so fascinating it hardly needs embellishment.
Perhaps the best criticism that can be applied to Fifth Business is that Davies tends to pay much attention to detail, which means long descriptions of things that don’t seem to have any relevance to the plot. Even here, though, Davies turns this into a success, as the details are often interesting in and of themselves. Davies also has a talent for making things that seem innocuous or unworthy of notice take on an entire new meaning in the light of a later passage, making this a book to read through several times.
Fifth Business: (n) Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business. (Definition found in the first pages of Fifth Business.)
This term and its definition must be kept in mind as you read Davies’ novel, as it relates to nearly every aspect and issue brought up, but especially to the character of Dunstan (once Dunstable) Ramsay. Shrewd yet compassionate, and strangely down-to-earth considering his life-long calling of chasing myths, legends, saints, and folklore, Ramsay is our unassuming protagonist. He speaks with a directness born of his Scottish heritage and upbringing and, as far as we know, tells no lies to save face for himself or anyone else. There is nothing obviously notable about Ramsay, but that is what makes him the perfect vehicle for the concept of fifth business. Although his achievements are typically understated and perhaps not particularly glamorous, the effects that he has on the people and events that surround him are immense and innumerable. What is truly incredible about this character, however, are the layers upon layers that Davies heaps on him. Where most well-rounded protagonists are three-dimensional, Ramsay could claim six or seven well within reason.
Reserve a special spot on your bookcase for the demure, yet enveloping, Fifth Business. 5 out of 5 stars.