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Who Stole the False Teeth? : A whodunit that'll make your teeth itch : THE CUNNING MAN, By Robertson Davies (Viking: $23.95; 469 pp.)

March 26, 1995|Joanna Scott | (Joanna Scott's most recent book is a collection of stories, "Various Antidotes." Henry Holt will publish her new novel, "The Manikin," in 1996.)

As a young child, I had an interest in false teeth, and my immodest Granny obliged me whenever she came to visit, calling me to her side before a meal so I could watch her put in her dentures and summoning me later for the ritual of removal. Sometimes I would sneak into her room when she was out and take a long, quiet look at the set of teeth submerged in a jelly glass full of mouthwash. Of course, I had no desire to touch the teeth. I understand now that my fascination was inspired by my early, confused suspicions about death. The false teeth seemed to me both mysterious and miraculous, as if they were a vital organ that my grandmother could implant and remove at will.

It turns out that I'm not the only one to find such illusive signification in a pair of dentures. In his new novel, "The Cunning Man," Robertson Davies spins his web of mystery and miracle around a preacher's false teeth. The narrator of this novel is a twentieth-century Canadian physician, Jonathan Hullah, an ace diagnostician, whose opening address to the reader is the question: "Should I have taken the false teeth?" The false teeth belong to "poor old Father Hobbes," who dies during a Good Friday service just after choming down on a holy wafer. Dr. Hullah is at the service, witnesses the old man's sudden death, and later signs the death certificate identifying cardiac arrest as the cause of death.

The simple question, "Should I have taken the false teeth?" suggests a larger question: Did Father Hobbes really die of natural causes? This serves as the kick-off mystery of the plot, though in usual Davies fashion it is supplanted by more evanescent mysteries. With Robert Burton's "The Anatomy of Melancholy" as his primary manual, Hullah sniffs his way through the perplexing world, exploring the mind's powers and fate's surreptitious tricks. Hullah is both observer and player, in this sense not so different from Dunstan Ramsay of Davies's "Deptford Triology," a character who comes to see himself as the "fifth business" sort, important as an agent in the drama but not a central figure. And like Dundstan Ramsay, Hullah pursues the mystery of life ot the edge of the miraculous.

His narrative roams back through his childhood in the northern woods of Ontario, where, against his mother's "civilizing" efforts, he becomes a "woods child" and develops a life-long habit of solitude. And it is in the forest where he visits the extraordinary Elsie Smoke, an Indian "wise woman" and the first important model for Hullah. To Davies' credit, he avoids caricature in his characterization of this powerful woman and yet still manages to cast her in an allegorical dimension. It seems that any character who has one foot in mysticism rouses Davies to some of his finest writing, as in this passage, where Elsie Smoke has picked up a rattlesnake from her basket and is urging young Hullah to touch it: "Long afterward I learn that the bite of these creatures is rarely fatal. Rarely--what sort of reassurance is that to a boy, already convinced of his delicacy, confronted by an old woman who he suddenly sees as quite other than himself, not simply in race and age, but in the deepest truth of her being, who is giggling and pushing the dreadful snake--(it is really only about twenty-four inches long but to me it has the menace of a dragon)--toward his face?"

Hullah ends up living most of his life in Toronto ("flat-footed, hard-breathing, high-aspiring Toronto," as he describes it), but Elsie Smoke's influence is permanent. In her elliptical fashion, she hints of a distant past, "the Great Time," and Hullah remains backward-looking throughout his adult life. One of the superficial motives for Hullah's narrative is a series of articles called, "The Toronto That Was," for which the elderly doctor is being interviewed. The interrogation by the young reporter, Ms. Esme Barron, prompts Dr. Hullah to describe his first years as a member of St. Aidan's Church, and from there he turns back and recounts the notable experiences of his childhood, his years in boarding school, his stint as an army physician in World War II, and his participation in a Toronto theater troupe.

Much of the material concerning his private life he shares with the reader in the form of a "case book" but withholds from Esme Barron. So there's an implied presumption that the information about himself, though unsuited for a newspaper article, has special significance--and some of it obviously does, especially the information that Hullah assembles about the cause of Father Hobbe's death (and the importance of the false teeth). But it's a presumption that is in danger of weakening the novel, especially when Hullah forgets his wonderfully eccentric cast of characters and indulges in opinions weakened by his nostalgia.

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