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Literature / J.W. Wells & Co.

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J. W. Wells & Co. is an ongoing humourous fantasy series by Tom Holt, revolving around a fictitious firm of magicians in modern London. The firm (and the series) is named for the main character from Gilbert and Sullivan's light operetta The Sorcerer.

The business of magic is a competitive, cut-throat one, even if your average man on the street is not aware of it. J.W. Wells & Co. have the best love potions in the business, but you need more than one product to remain viable in this business. The firm is determined to keep up, and its leaders are Not Nice People.

The novels in the series are:

  • The Portable Door
  • In Your Dreams
  • Earth, Air, Fire and Custard
  • You Don't Have to Be Evil to Work Here, But It Helps
  • The Better Mousetrap
  • May Contain Traces of Magic
  • Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages

The first three novels revolve around Paul Carpenter, hapless new hire, who finds himself a bit over his head. In fact, most of the novels revolve around new hires who find themselves a bit over their heads, although The Better Mousetrap stars Carpenter's son, Frank, who has his own business using the portable door from the first novel.

A film adaptation The Portable Door was released for 2023.

Tropes in this series:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: A variant: Rosie Tanner (aka "Mr. Tanner's mum"), who plays this kind of role to Paul Carpenter. She's a goblin. However, she does have the ability to shapeshift into a beautiful young human woman. It's just that Paul can't forget her real form, and she's also the mother of his sadistic boss.
  • Action Survivor: Paul Carpenter— halfway through book two, he turns out to be The Chosen One, but it doesn't really help at all.
  • Attending Your Own Funeral: Paul Carpenter pulls this in book three, after faking a relapse of death. Considering that he died something like three times per book and usually recovered by the next chapter, this is hardly surprising.
  • Cat Up a Tree: The magical pest exterminator Love Interest's first appearance in The Better Mousetrap has her being employed to rescue a cat from a tree. When she breaks her neck, The Hero (who is employed to save her life to prevent an insurance company from paying out) ends up playing a brief game of Xanatos Speed Chess with a magical device known as a Better Mousetrap, which keeps finding new ways to get her killed.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Earth, Air, Fire and Custard describes it thus:
    ''Missing the point with all the futile diligence of a blind machine-gunner."
  • Continuity Drift: In the first novel, using the eponymous Portable Door for more than an hour is incredibly draining, with potential risk to the user's life. By May Contain Traces of Magic, a character has pretty much relocated to his past (our present) using said Door, and isn't even remotely drained.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Many of the members of the board of executives of the eponymous company are like this, and since the company supplies magical services to anyone able to pay enough, the members of the company often have supernatural powers themselves. Both Professor van Spee and Judy di Castel'bianco try to take over the world before being neutralized by the hero, and Dennis Tanner is universally regarded as a highly unscrupulous jerk, though not as evil as some of his colleagues. The Better Mousetrap features another corrupt executive from a rival company, who has people killed on a regular basis until she is sent back in time and her magical abilities are neutralized.
  • Dangerous Workplace: The firm of J. W. Wells and Co. might seem like a great advancement opportunity—but that assumes you live long enough to advance. And don't wind up transformed into a piece of office equipment.
  • Dragon Hoard: Dragons often appear in the vaults of banks, which is why companies like J.W. Wells find it useful and lucrative to keep a "pest control specialist" in their employ.
  • Element No. 5: In Earth, Air, Fire and Custard, the fifth element is, as you might guess, custard. Or a substance virtually indistinguishable from custard, except for its magical properties. It was created by the powerful wizard, Professor Van Spee.
  • Eye Scream: Downplayed/played for humor in Earth, Air, Fire and Custard: Paul gets so frustrated that he begins stabbing the powerful creature known as Mr. Laertides in the eye with a biro. Mr. Laertides simply ignores him and goes on with his annoying exposition.
  • Fantasy Kitchen Sink: The series throws in mermaids, living swords, goblins, dragons, the Fey, the Bank of the Dead, a lich, giants, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Riders of Rohan, God, and a living stapler.
  • Forced Transformation: The standard punishment for betraying the firm is being turned into office supplies. You retain some measure of sapience.
  • Future Badass: Paul Carpenter encounters a badass swordsman version of himself in Earth, Fire, Air and Custard—the end of the plot of that book was so convoluted it's hard to tell, and he never finds out for sure, but there's a good chance said version of Paul existed because a Canadian bank tried to change history to make Canada a major world power.
  • Great Big Book of Everything: May Contain Traces of Magic features a Book of Human Knowledge which is mass-produced by the sorcerous corporation J.W. Wells and co. However, the book only shows the viewer what he or she needs to know at the time, not what that person specifically wants to look up, unless you know the cheat codes.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Mr. Tanner, one of the firm's partners, is half-goblin. (His shapeshifting goblin mum works as the company's receptionist.)
  • Interspecies Romance: The Paul Carpenter series features a she-goblin who shapeshifts into a different beautiful human girl every day and tries to hit on the main character. She mentions that lots of goblin girls like to have flings with humans, and that as shapeshifters, they are open-minded and don't care much about appearances.
  • Love Potion: The series features J.W. Wells' famous "love philtre", which always works - it knocks the drinker out for twenty minutes, and they fall in love with the first person of the opposite sex they see. There have to be something like five or six instances of this throughout the series, nearly always with horrific potential. As in all his books, Holt plays fast and loose with consistency, and a love philtre which "always" works somehow generally finds a way to wear off. At least until the very end of the third book, where the "hero" and "heroine" (if they can be described as such) are finally given such a heavy dose of the thing that they spend the rest of eternity making dovey-eyes at each other.
  • Na├»ve Newcomer: Paul Carpenter. Considering the entire place pretty much is having fun keeping him thinking he's insane due to all the crazy things happening, he doesn't really fall into this trope as much as sink horrifyingly into it as it slowly closes its inky black waters around him.
  • Mrs. Robinson: Rosie, the mother of Mr. Tanner (one of the partners of the J.W. Wells firm) has a thing for young human men, and constantly flirts with the Hapless Everydude character of Paul Carpenter. However, as she is a goblin with the ability to shapeshift into a variety of beautiful young human women, the age and species difference is not apparently obvious unless she reverts to her true form. She gets some of the funniest lines in the books and shows a manipulative streak worthy of a Magnificent Bastard, though she schemes for fun and mischief rather than an end goal. However, she is somewhat sympathetic as she is the only character who looks out for Paul and tries to help him in dangerous situations.
  • Mundane Afterlife: In some ways, the afterlife featured in the series is not at all mundane, being an empty white expanse. However, considering the only activities that take place there are classes in basket weaving and intermediate Spanish, it probably counts.
  • The Power of Love:
    • In The Portable Door, the only way to get the swords out of the stones to get a hold of the keys on the end is to have two people who are in love pulling them.
    • An even more bizarre version comes from You Don't Have to be Evil to Work Here, But It Helps. Screwing with True Love actually causes the entire Universe to go a bit out of whack, and maths stops working properly.
  • Released to Elsewhere: In In Your Dreams, Paul Carpenter doesn't spend the whole book trying to rescue his girlfriend Sophie because he genuinely believes she's been reassigned to an office in Los Angelos, left without saying goodbye, and broke up with him via a letter. Not quite this trope because he does manage to rescue her before she actually dies.
  • Retcon:
    • Ricky Wurmtoter, revealed to be over a thousand years old in Earth, Air, Fire & Custard had a twenty-something sister in In Your Dreams who is promptly forgotten about.
    • Earth, Air, Fire and Custard retcons Paul's original role as identifying custard mines (yes...) rather than bauxite, and then almost immediately has him sense a large bauxite deposit with no mention of the fact that apparently wasn't what he was doing.
  • Rule of Funny: The series runs on this.
  • Saw a Woman in Half: In The Portable Door, the head of a firm of (real) magicians does this to the assistant of a business rival at his son's birthday party. He then explains to his competitor that he'll leave her to die if he doesn't get his way.
  • Sickeningly Sweethearts: Parodied in one of the novels, where a bickering couple are tricked into overdosing on love potion. They start using pet names at the end of every sentence but retain their normal personalities, leading to sentences like, "Don't be such a bloody idiot, honey-bunny".
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: Goblins can shift instantaneously into any human form, although whether they can take other forms has not been mentioned. The vainer goblins in the series, such as Rosie Tanner, enjoy transforming into a different supermodel-gorgeous human every day, wearing bodies the way some Hollywood film stars wear clothes — always the best, and never the same outfit twice. It is emphasized that while goblins actually change the structure of their bodies, other creatures like the Fey prefer the simpler methods of glamour and illusion, which take less magical strength than actual shapeshifting.
  • Weirdness Magnet: Paul Carpenter gets a job with a major firm of unknown purpose, despite confusing Anton Chekhov with Pavel Chekov. The building seems to reshape itself more or less at random, the stapler will disappear across the building if you put it down for two seconds (even if you're the only one in the room and the door is locked), new employees are left to sort graph printouts that have been scrambled and draw circles around anything on an aerial photograph that looks like a bauxite deposit, and claw marks and sinister glowing eyes appear to pop up occasionally. Paul's misadventures last for three books, all of them introducing new elements of the Fantasy Kitchen Sink any of Holt's characters find themselves stuck in...and all of them seem to need Paul for some purpose in their great (ten-sided) game of Xanatos Speed Chess. It turns out he's been developed as a living weapon by a couple of blood relatives, one of whom is a) God and b) his real father, and as an additional bonus he's the reincarnation of a Norse warlord.

Alternative Title(s): The Portable Door