I hope The Portable Door is a cracking good movie — it’s an Australian feature released in early 2023 — because the premise is terrific. Young graduate Paul Carpenter lands a job at the venerable London firm of J.W. Wells & Co., though even after the job interview he’s not entirely clear what it is that the business does. His first days on the job spent sorting printouts of impenetrable spreadsheets into chronological order leave him none the wiser. His office-mate Sophie Pettingel is equally in the dark. The place is odd, no doubt, and gets odder when the objects of their sorting attention are switched from printouts to items in the disordered basement strongroom. Share certificates from 1901 are a little odd, financially speaking; a map purporting to show King Solomon’s Mines is definitely odder; an unpublished manuscript from Marcel Proust pushes the odd-meter up into the red zone.
And then there is the part of the premise from the back cover: “It seems that half the time [Paul’s] bosses are away with the fairies. But they’re not, of course. They’re away with the goblins.”
So far, so fun, which is why I picked up the book: light adventure in a modern world where bits of magic work, unbeknownst to most of the populace, plus a humorous approach. I think a movie version might be the very thing, because it would have a chance to clean up the book’s pacing, which really broke down for me. The strongroom scene happens nearly a third of the way through the book, and the characters are still very much in the dark about what the firm does, and what that might mean for them. The first real explanation from senior partners in the firm doesn’t come until almost halfway through the book, and it was around then that I began to think that the book’s business would not get wrapped up by the final chapter. And indeed, The Portable Door is the first in a series of eight books to date that are concerned with J.W. Wells & Co., though nothing in the presentation of The Portable Door — including the long list of Tom Holt’s books opposite the title page — so much as hints at the continuation. The immediate questions of the book do get resolved, hurriedly and somewhat haphazardly in my view.
I don’t know why the pacing was so off; Holt has been publishing since the mid-1980s, and had more than two dozen novels to his and his main pseudonym’s names when The Portable Door was first published in 2003. The book meanders, often amusingly it’s true, through its first half. Then there are a couple of good capers in the third quarter, though they felt cut short to me. Then some of the main questions — what does the firm do, why is it the way it is, what’s up with the titular Door — get resolved in a quick wrap-up. Sophie and Paul have apparently come in at the end of a long quarrel, but its settling doesn’t mean nearly as much to the two of them, and thus to readers, as it does to the participants in the quarrel. What should be the novel’s payoff felt like a ledger entry for a sideline business. The novel’s portfolio was unbalanced: too much time in early-stage business meant that its main investments, Paul and Sophie, had little room to grow, and events overtook them. They were saved by an angel investor who brought in fresh capital at the last minute. Adaptation for the big screen could speed up the parts that needed to be settled sooner and make the parts of the story fit together better.
What’s good about The Portable Door? Holt’s portrait of Paul as a young man clueless about women and trying out the first steps of adulthood sometimes hit all too close to home. Some of the whimsy about magic and the firm is quite funny, and suggests that the book’s world works in weird and interesting ways. Holt’s comic timing in short scenes can be really nice.
“Apart from that,” [Paul’s friend] Duncan went on, “what’s it like? I take it they haven’t fired you yet.”
Paul grinned. “They’d have to notice I exist first,” he said.
Paul thought about the red eye through the letter box and the claw-mark and Professor Van Spee; then he thought about photocopying the spreadsheets. “Yes,” he said. “How about you?”
The movie played in the US and UK in the spring of 2023, but no release date for a DVD version seems to have been released yet. I guess I will have to wait.