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?