The Daily Telegraph
Sat 17 November 2001
Storytelling was Dorothy Dunnett's life By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff, 11/17/2001
The children and grandchildren of Dorothy Dunnett must have loved bedtime if it meant that she was going to tell them a story.
The Scottish novelist, who died Sunday at age 78, was an enthralling storyteller who built an extraordinary relationship with her many readers in the English-speaking world. There is a helpful reader's companion to her books; her fans convene annually and make holiday trips to destinations described in her books. There are Dunnett Web sites and Dunnett newsletters where readers swapped theories, asked questions, and shared arcane lore even after 2000, when she brought to a close her 14-volume chronicle of high adventure in the Renaissance centuries. People don't just read her books; they re-read them, pore over them, ponder them, live with them. Reading them helped my mother through my father's illness and death, and she still makes it a project to read them every winter. Dunnett, born Dorothy Halliday in Dunfermline, Scotland, attended school at James Gillespie's School for Girls (famous for its depiction in an alumna's book, Muriel Spark's ''The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie''). She became a portrait painter, a wife, a mother, and an Edinburgh hostess of legendary high spirits and hospitality. Dunnett wrote her first novel when she was 38. She had trouble finding a publisher, but then the editor who said yes to ''Gone With the Wind'' recognized the qualities of ''The Game of Kings''; it came out in America in 1961 - before it did in Britain. Most of Dunnett's books belong to two interlinked series. The six volumes of the Lymond Chronicles relate the epic history of the dashing Francis Crawford of Lymond and his search for his own identity, which took him from Scotland to France, Malta, Ivan the Terrible's Russia, Turkey, and the England of the future Queen Elizabeth. After that series came to a close, in 1975, Dunnett embarked on a ''prequel,'' the eight volumes of ''The House of Niccolo,'' which widen the geographical, political, social, and economic scope, and she closed with the publication of ''Gemini'' last year. She also wrote a vast novel about the historical Macbeth, ''King Hereafter'' (1982), and, as a diversion, seven deft mystery stories about a portrait-painting yachtsman named Johnson Johnson. (There was a period when Dunnett's works were hard to come by, but now Random House publishes a uniform paperback edition.) The appeal of Dunnett's historical novels is many-sided. Her heroes are roguish, romantic, and impossibly heroic, but flecked with human and compelling flaws; Francis Crawford, she once confessed, was modeled on her husband, Sir Alistair Dunnett, editor of the newspaper The Scotsman. Her women are as roisterous and resourceful as her men - and they can be as wicked as her villains, most of whom have interestingly redeeming qualities. Dunnett spent years in research, so the books are filled with lore - not just from history and anecdote, but also from poetry, music, and the visual arts. She assimilated all this knowledge so thoroughly that it became part of her world view, and a significant strand in the texture of the books - for her it was never a matter of throwing in a few familiar facts to supply verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. We can see, hear, smell, and feel what it was like to live in these times and places, to move through climates, landscapes, cities, and rooms wearing those clothes. Two British obituaries quoted her observation on research trips: ''I never travel without a screwdriver, a bathplug, some loo paper, and a twist of wire (that's for when there are no locks on the door).'' Dunnett was a great game-player too, spinning out intricately knotted plot lines involving hundreds of characters whom she wove into patterns as complex as those of a master-level chess game. In fact there's a chess game for mortal stakes in one of the Lymond novels that makes the one in ''Harry Potter'' look like child's play. She tosses around clues, red herrings, subplots, and foreshadowings with abandon, and Nostradamus appears as one of her characters; she leaps from rooftop to rooftop, brandishing her sword like Francis Crawford, and she never loses her footing. Then there's the attraction of her style, which is at once opulent and racy; the books speed with irresistible momentum, but there's even more to enjoy when you slow down. Dunnett's greatest gift was primal, and one she shared with her predecessors and mentors, Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas: the ability to tell a story, the ability to make you feel that nothing is more important and puzzling than what's going to happen next. Dunnett's books were designed to keep you up all night, to make you forget who and where you are - and, by doing that, to bring you back home to who and where you really are.
This story ran on page F6 of the Boston Globe on 11/17/2001. © Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.
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