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15 November 2016

Remembering Dorothy Dunnett

This past Saturday was International Dorothy Dunnett Day. My daughter Mélanie and I celebrated with a group of Dunnett readers in the Bay Area (above) while round the world other Dunnett readers toast the Scottish historical novelist with drams of her favorite Highland Park whisky.

This seems a good time to repeat a post I first put up in 2007 about Dunnett, who has been a major influence on me as writer.

I first discovered Dorothy Dunnett’s books the summer between high school and college. I picked up The Game of Kings, the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, and spent a couple of days curled up on the sofa, glued to the page. I promptly devoured the rest of the six volume series. I told my mother she had to read them. It took her a bit of time to get into The Game of Kings, but soon she was as hooked as I was.

For those who haven’t yet discovered the Lymond Chronicles, the series begins in 16th century Scotland (when Mary, Queen of Scots, is a young child) and ranges all over the Continent. At the heart of the series is Francis Crawford of Lymond, mercenary, scholar, musician. Brilliant, tortured, an enigma to the reader and to most of the other characters. A lot of the fun of the series is trying to find the key to the fascinating code of who Lymond is, both literally (his parentage is in question) and in psychological terms. There’s a wonderful supporting cast of characters, both real historical figures and fictional characters blended seamlessly together. There’s adventure, angst, political intrigue, witty dialogue, and poetic allusions. The writing is wonderfully rich (Dunnett was also a painter), the pacing breakneck.

After the Lymond Chronicles, my mom and I both read Dunnett’s stand alone novel King Hereafter and her contemporary mysteries. And then to our excitement, she began a new series, the House of Niccolò, set in the 15th century, beginning in Bruges but again ranging all over, this time as far as Timbucktu and Iceland. The hero of the new series was a young dyeworks apprentice named Nicholas, dismissed as a buffoon by many but with abilities which lead him to rise in the commercial world and pull him into political intrigue in more than one country. Again, fictional events are blended with real historical events and mysteries abound. Reading the Lymond Chronicles, I thought, “it would have been really hard to read these as they were written and have to wait for each book.” With the House of Niccolò we had to do just that, with two years or so between each book. With their complex characters, intricate plots, and cliffhanger endings, the Dunnett books cry out for discussion. My mom and I talked about them endlessly, but we didn’t know anyone else who read them. I was thrilled to meet fellow writer Penelope Williamson and discover she was also a Dunnett reader. Penny and I spent many long lunches analyzing Dunnett’s books and speculating about what would happen next in the Niccolò series.

Then, in the mid-nineties, Penny and I both got online. We discovered there were whole online groups devoted to discussing Dunnett’s novels. Suddenly we could analyze and speculate with people all over the world. Dunnett readers tend to be a wonderul group–warm, friendly, well-read. I’ve had a great time geting together with fellow Dunnett readers both in the Bay Area and while traveling. In 2000, Penny and I and a number of our other Dunnett-reading friends went to Scotland for a conference in honor of the publication of the last book in the House of Niccolò series. Even now the series is finished (and Dunnett sadly passed away a few years ago) we love to get together online and in person to discuss Dunnett books and other books (not to mention tv shows from Deadwood to Spooks/MI-5 to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which seems to be a particular favorite with Dunnett readers) :-).

Dunnett talked about reading and being influenced by other writers I love–Sabatini, Orczy, Heyer (certainly you can see bits of Andre-Louis Moreau and Percy Blakeney in Lymond, no to mention a touch of Peter Wimsey). She’s been a huge influence on me. I can see a number of echoes of her books looking at my Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch series–questions about parentage, the secrets of parents echoing through their children's lives, spouses working on opposite sides and wondering if they can trust each other, personal and political loyalties intertwining and conflicting. I still pull out her books and reread certain scenes when I have to tackle an action sequence or a sword fight (The Game of Kings has the best sword fight I’ve ever read).

Have you read Dunnett? Do you enjoy discussing her books? Are there other authors you discuss with friends, online or in person?

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9 Comments:

Blogger Patricia Brimer said...

Oh how I wish I could attend one of these lunches--health does not permit
I discovered Niccolo and Lymond just a couple years agso--and immediately joined several facebook pages==a couple yahoo groups. Same to be said for your Rannoch series, Tracy. And I have joined several author sites of my fave series

8:02 PM  
Blogger Lynne Hess said...

I don't need to comment - you said it all. You and I bonded over Dunnett when I first discovered your books. She is, by far, my favorite historical fiction writer. Great summery and how nice that other people cherish her books so much.

10:14 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great to hear from both of you, Patti and Lynne! I'm always particularly flattered when Dunnett readers enjoy my books :-). And I think she's the sort of writer who really cries out for discussion - so much to analyze and speculate over. I was thinking Saturday how cool it is that there is now an online forum where readers discuss my books.

10:51 PM  
Blogger mk said...

She is my favorite author EVER. I thought she could do not wrong until I read King Thereafter, which I hated, but her 2 series are just breathtaking.

6:33 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

It's funny about "King Hereafter" - I really liked it, but I know a lot who don't. I also know a fair number of people who love the Lymond series but couldn't get into the Nicolo and a few the other way round, who started with Nicolo and love it and can't get into Lymond. Do all of you have a favorite?

10:54 AM  
Blogger Patricia Brimer said...

Niccolo was my fist so I do love him--but seems Lymond is more available to discuss online so am now more familiar with the whys and wherefors of his story. I did enjoy KH but was not so fond of the Dolly series

12:17 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

The Lymond Chronicles do seem to draw more discussion, don't they, Patti? I wonder if that series has more open-ended questions? I enjoyed some of the JJs but they never really hooked me. I do know one reader who got into Dunnett through the JJs as well.

12:45 PM  
Blogger Lynne Hess said...

Patti, I liked Niccolo a lot, too, but Francis was my first love. And the love story between him and Philippa was one of the best in historical fiction. I remember crying buckets during the last chapters of Checkmate - Dunnett really knew how to draw you in and get to you.

8:26 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Dunnett writes emotion incredibly well. The tension in the earlier scenes between Francis and Philippa in Checkmate, where they aren't even touching each other, is breathtaking.

8:31 PM  

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