Recent Reading: Dolly and the Bird of Paradise by Dorothy Dunnett

To most of my clients, bifocal glasses are asthma. All those words are spelled correctly. I looked them up.

All the Dolly mysteries (the Johnson Johnson series) feature bifocal glasses in the very first line. This is a sign, one of many in my opinion, that Dorothy Dunnett wrote them for fun and really enjoyed playing with them. I imagine the writing experience was very different for her compared to working on her massive historical series.

All of these mysteries are told in the first person, and all of them feature a (different) female pov character, who is always intelligent, young, pretty, and extremely competent in a particular field. Thus we have Dolly and the Cookie Bird (the pov character is, of course, a cook); Dolly and the Doctor Bird, and so on. As “bird” is no longer remotely the in slang for “girl,” all these books got new titles when they were re-issued. As it happened, I tracked them all down before they were re-issued (with some trouble, because this was before Amazon), so I have copies of them with their original titles. They were the very first out-of-print books I every deliberately set out to find.

So that’s one thing to know about these mysteries: I deliberately tracked them down when they were hard to find.

And another thing: they’re all first-person pov with female main characters.

Here’s one more: in a sense, the pov characters are not actually the protagonist.

Have you all read Dunnett’s Lymond series? The Game of Kings and all the others? Which I prefer to her even more massive Niccolo series, personally. Anyway: the Lymond series. Seven big historical novels set in the time of Mary Queen of Scots. I love them . . . most of them . . . at least, I love a lot of things about them. If you haven’t tried them, the first book is self-contained and probably the best. If you have read them, did you notice how we never, ever see anything from Lymond’s point of view? This is just about unique in my experience: Lymond is the protagonist, but never a point-of-view character. I was fascinated by this when I first read the series and tried to something of the same kind of thing with a big fantasy duology that sometimes, depending on my mood, I think is the best thing I’ve ever written. Someday it will find a home or else I will bring it out myself, but never mind, long story.

Anyway, these Dolly mysteries are a bit like that, because Johnson Johnson is in a sense the continuing protagonist through all of them, even though he is not the pov character. He’s also a bit like Lymond in some ways – incisive, sharp, ruthless. He’s a famous portrait-painter who owns the yacht Dolly. He’s also a senior intelligence agent for the British. He is the guy who knows what’s going on; he’s the one driving the action behind the scenes. Because he’s not the pov character, Dunnett is able to hide a lot from the reader. Which, as the reader, you know perfectly well. It makes for a unique style of writing and an unusual reading experience.

More than that, despite the first-person viewpoint, Dunnett frequently conceals a lot about the female leads from the reader as well. You should read them just for that – to see what you catch and what you miss and if you get what no one is saying out loud. I wish I remembered if I figured out myself that Rita, in Bird of Paradise, is dyslexic. It’s been too long since I first read it, but probably. Everyone knows about dyslexia these days.

In some ways, Dunnett’s mysteries remind me of Mary Stewart’s mysteries, because in Airs Above the Ground, for example, Stewart also has moments when she conceals something from the reader despite the pov first-person protagonist knowing it. It takes particularly good writing to pull that off without making it feel to the reader like you’re cheating.

I really enjoy the way Rita is presented. She’s one of my favorites from the whole Dolly series, and I like most of the pov characters from the whole series. When in doubt, attack, is her motto. She spikes her hair and dyes it orange and blue. She sometimes paints her face in stripes. She is smart and capable and brave and extremely loyal and the best makeup artist in the world – or near enough, anyway.

Bird of Paradise, like all the Dolly mysteries, is quick and cleverly plotted, with plenty of twists and turns. You might suspect these mysteries would have a strong romantic component because young/pretty/female pov characters, right? No. There’s one aspect where they differ dramatically from Mary Stewart’s mysteries, because Stewart’s could be read as romances-with-mystery as easily as the reverse. There is essentially zero romance in Dunnett’s series. So if that’s important to you, I’m just saying, don’t look for romance from these stories.

Clever plotting, yes. Clever writing, yes. Clever dialogue, yes. You have to be on your toes to catch some of Dunnett’s tricks with dialogue, in fact. But zero romance. In a way, in fact, they are more intellectual stories, and less emotional. But they have way more character depth than pure intellectual mysteries like the Sherlock Holmes stories or, say, the earlier Peter Whimsy stories by Dorothy Sayers. That’s important for me personally – I was always dead bored by Sherlock Holmes because I’m fundamentally a character reader. In contrast, I’ve really been enjoying re-reading Dorothy Dunnett and Mary Stewart lately.

If any of you have read these Dolly mysteries, chime in! What do you think of them?

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9 thoughts on “Recent Reading: Dolly and the Bird of Paradise by Dorothy Dunnett”

  1. I ought to try one of these: which is the best one to start with?

    I was impressed by the first of the Lymond chronicles but found it pretty dense going. Then ran aground partway through the second one.

  2. Craig, although I love Dunnett’s historicals, on these mysteries I go from ok -> strongly put off. And the one that rates ‘ok’ is this one, Tropical Issue/Bird of Paradise, so I recommend starting there. I like Rita. Most of the other narrators have left me cold, although i suppose I could give them another chance.

    Most have had three titles, BTW. I have a cross-reference of them somewhere on my hard drive.

    I’ve heard from mystery readers that they aren’t standard mysteries and don’t always play fair with the clue – which is, IMO, likely, as by my reading of her historicals what she thinks of as clues aren’t what other people necessarily think of as clues.

    I’ve also seen people go to town speculating on Johnson’s personal history and the story behind him. Some have come up with quite impressive scenarios. So these books do capture some people’s imagination, and are probably worth trying once.

    The author made no effort to be consistent in chronology in the writing: she has some books taking place obviously early in Johnson’s life, but set at the time Dunnett wrote it, so you have to think of them as taking place in a weird time frame, if that sort of thing bothers you. (It does me.) The jumping around in time may be more obvious if you read them as they came out, I’m not sure.

    The last written book, Kasbah/Morrocan Traffic has been rechristened by some readers “Dodo Bird” so I’d put that one last on the reading list.

    I think they are supposed to be somewhat humorous, but what works in her historicals as humor doesn’t work for me in the contemporary setting. I don’t really know why – maybe it has to do with connecting/not connecting with the characters.

  3. p.s. We do see things, occasionally, from Lymond’s POV. But not much. None at all in the first book, and about a paragraph late in the second…

  4. Loved all of the Dolly books, and I read them for the first time over 20 years ago when I was a teenager. Nanny Bird was my favorite but Bird of Paradise is up there too.

  5. I read through them all recently. They’re more character study spy novels than traditional mysteries, but the character study part is fascinating.

    Some weird uncomfortable gender stuff occasionally, but compelling writing.

  6. I agree with Andrea that these are at least as much character studies as mysteries — and I agree about the occasionally weird gender stuff; for me particularly in Doctor Bird. I was definitely not keen on seeing the main character as someone who needed to be “fixed” because she was not promoting her own attractiveness enough. Even so, I read past it; the writing is so interesting that for me even in Doctor Bird it doesn’t spoil the book. Nanny Bird is my second-favorite; The Singing Bird is my least favorite by a mile. Talk about an unlikable main character! I definitely wouldn’t suggest starting with that one.

    Re-reading is interesting. Mary Stewart’s protagonists are also striking me as more wimpy and less intelligent than I remembered — less so in Nine Coaches than some of the others.

  7. You’re right. I had forgotten, but actually by the end, we do get his pov quite a bit. I even like his pov sections. I guess I was thinking mostly about the early books and how completely Dunnett reserves his pov.

  8. Coming EXTREMELY late to this particular party, but was searching up JJ + Dunnett tonight to see if any more information about the series had materialized and Google led me here…

    I read the Lymond series and KING HEREAFTER first, way back in the early 90’s when Pamela Dean first recommended them on FidoNet. A little later I discovered the Johnson books on my own, and pretty much fell head over heels for Johnson (high-handed and occasionally slappable though he may be). I also, on first reading, latched onto the conviction that Johnson was destined to end up with Joanna from NANNY BIRD aka SPLIT CODE, if only the books had lasted long enough — though on later re-reading I found myself wavering in that conviction, and a comment I read somewhere about Dunnett’s plans for the last book in the series (i.e. the thing I was trying to find tonight on Google, albeit fruitlessly) suggested that his dead wife was not in fact dead but actually alive and kind of evil, which admittedly sounds like a thing Dunnett would do, so I may have to sadly let that particular ship sail off into the sunset with my other youthful follies.

    Still a bit in love with Johnson, though. I confess that the character of Faraday in my teen novel ULTRAVIOLET was more than a little influenced by JJ, particularly the messy hair and complete lack of fashion sense…

  9. I never heard that JJ’s first wife might not be dead, but evil! …. That is soooo plausible. But Dunnett normally does have things work out okay in the very end, so I hereby declare that if JJ’s first wife did turn out to be evil, she would die in the last book and at least the potential for Johnson Johnson getting together with Joanna (good choice) would be sketched out.

    I think I have a thing for high-handed male leads, as long as they’re ultra-competent. That’s one reason Wexler’s Shadow Campaign series works so well for me, because I really like Janus ben Valnich.

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