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This review is taken from PN Review 52, Volume 13 Number 2, November - December 1986.

THE DUKE OF DARK CORNERS Robertson Davies, What's Bred in the Bone (Viking) £9.95

The title of Robertson Davies' latest novel derives from a medieval proverb with a modern ring: 'What's bred in the bone will not out in the flesh', which could stand as the motto of some hardboiled geneticist or psychologist. Davies, for his part, is sceptical of any philosophy that maintains human life is entirely determined, and in What's Bred in the Bone, he tells the story of a man who finds freedom through the liberating power of art.

The novel opens in Canada, Davies' home country. Francis Cornish, art expert and wealthy collector, has just died and his executors - his nephew Arthur, Arthur's wife, and the Reverend Simon Darcourt - are discussing the biography Darcourt is writing of the dead man. Unable to find sufficient information about his subject's childhood, Darcourt is doubtful of ever finishing the book. 'Oh, I wish', he laments, 'I had the indecency of so many biographers and dared to fake it! Not crude faking, of course, but a kind of fiction, the sort of fiction that rises to the level of art!' Arthur's wife playfully suggests that what Darcourt needs is the help of the Lesser Zadkiel, the Angel of Biography, and of Maimas, Cornish's daimon. Hearing their names invoked, the celestial pair duly appear and set about telling the full story of Francis Cornish.

It is a story rich in deceit. Cornish works for the Secret Service; he is a professional double-dealer. In his capacity as a picture-restorer, ...

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