Thursday, 16 November 2017

A tribute to Dorothy Dunnett

Dorothy Dunnett OBE was a Scottish historical novelist best known for her six-part series about Francis Crawford of Lymond. Born in Dunfermline in 1923 she began writing when she could find nothing suitable to read and the first in the series of six was published in 1962 though I believe it was published earlier in America because it failed to find a publisher in the UK.
I found Game of Kings on the library shelves while hunting for books for my mother. She gave it back to me saying “You should read this. You’ll like it.” Like it? I loved it! At 18, who could resist the dashing Scots mercenary, Francis Crawford of Lymond, who travelled to the French and English courts, and later became caught up in intrigues across 16th-century Europe? Not only that, but the other characters were glorious too, and they said things that stuck in my mind for years. The language was a delight, in places perhaps a little overdone for today’s tastes, but the dialogue was brilliant. I still re-read chunks now and then for the sheer pleasure of her style.
I raced through the series and came to a dead halt at the end of book number four in the series, Pawn in Frankincense, in 1969. I discovered she lived in Edinburgh, wrote to her and still have her reply in which she assured me there would be two more volumes to complete the series.
I worked in a library at the time and we gave the books to everyone we though would enjoy them. Eventually one of our ladies invited Dorothy to speak at Wilton Castle and it was there she told us of an American lady who had written 72 letters to her whilst reading the books. I volunteered to take the strain, Dorothy put the American lady and I in touch and we wrote to each other about the puzzles of the books for the next decade or so.
One reviewer at the time called Francis Crawford a sixteenth century James Bond, but the stories were far more complex than any Bond story. Puzzles were linked throughout the books and only answered in the last volume, and even then there were loose ends. By the end of Game of Kings, Lymond had certainly proved his innocence against the charge of treason, but the reader was left with the far greater puzzle of his parenthood. By the end of Checkmate we thought we had all the answers, but then doubts began to creep in.
Another series began – this time a prequel called The House of Niccolò. The first volume was published in 1986 and the hero was vastly different to the suave, elegant Francis Crawford. A dye maker’s apprentice, Niccolo lived in Bruges a whole century earlier. I think I still have the first galley copy without a cover or a spine that someone managed to obtain from the publisher, so desperate were we to read more Dunnett.

More puzzles and we had to wait yet more years for the answers. I don’t mean crossword puzzles, but puzzles of ancestry, of loyalty, of skulduggery. All this time Dorothy was writing a new Dolly book every spring – Dolly being a gaff rigged ketch and the home of artist Johnson Johnson who sailed the world investigating crimes. Then later still came King Hereafter, the book that some think her best work. Dorothy convinced me Thorfinn and MacBeth were the same person and though it was the hardest of all to read and understand, it pays re-reading and gives a huge insight into the minds of those who lived so long ago.

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