DOLLY AND THE BIRD OF PARADISE (1983) by Dorothy Dunnett

Dunnett-Dolly-Starry-Bird-penguinDorothy Dunnett (1923 – 2001) was best known for her historical novels but she also penned a series of mysteries featuring Johnson Johnson, a portrait painter and spy who travels on his yacht, the eponymous ‘Dolly,’ each book narrated by a different woman he helps. Originally published under her ‘Dorothy Halliday’ pseudonym, the series was later re-issued under new titles (this one is also known as Tropical Issue). In this case Johnson gets mixed up with make-up artist Rita Geddes, who is on the hunt for her mentor’s killer.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘multiple title’ category and so conclude this year’s challenge, just in time …

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

Each book in the series begins by mentioning bifocals – and we learn here that our narrator, in confusing asthma and anathema, is in fact dyslexic. After a much too long and somewhat desultory opening in London – where Rita (well, strictly speaking, Marguerite) first meets Johnson, who is recovering from injuries sustained after a plane crash – the Dolly lays anchor at Madeira and the plot proper begins. Rita may be on the diminutive side (4 feet 11 inches to be exact) but she is a very feisty Glaswegian, a punk, and tough as (black-lacquered) nails. She doesn’t think much of Johnson when she first meets him – apparently a casual encounter that turns out to be a set-up –  but then she doesn’t know that he is nursing a terrible tragedy. It turns out that the private plane he was flying on was sabotaged and it was also carrying his wife, who died in the crash.

I said, “How long does it take for a hurricane to pass?”
“Too bloody long,” said Raymond shortly.


Rita is working for celebrity journalist Natalie Sheridan, a gig she landed through her the photographer friend, the lascivious and mischievous Ferdy Braithwaite, and Kim-Jim Curtis, makeup artist to the stars. She follows her to Madeira – her first trip out of the UK – but soon they are all in danger and Johnson comes back in her life, and indeed comes back to life after his personal tragedy, to save the day Although the pace seems a bit slow to begin with, things do pick up once we reach the Caribbean and indeed there may even be a bit too much going on at times sorting out the drug smuggling plot, before we discover whodunit. Dunnett was a fine novelist no matter the chosen genre however and here proves to be in complete command of her plot. On top of which, Rita makes for a very appealing narrator, even when she is being a bit irritating – but then, she does have rather a lot to put up with (she is forever getting propositioned). Having Johnson as the protagonist always presented though another character’s point of view is an interesting device, allowing Dunnett to be quite crafty in her plotting. This also makes all the books quite distinct and entertaining in their own way – which is just as well because the ordering of them as part of the series can be a bit of a headache actually …

Men are what spoil the breed.
Men are bums.
That’s what gives men a bad name: bums like Johnson.

This is partly because most of the books have appeared under two or even three titles over the years (the US titles always omitted the ‘Dolly’ soubriquet anyway – when the series started, it referred to the yacht but also to the female narrators as it was a swinging sixties term for young women). More importantly, the publication order does not actually follow the internal chronology of the series; thus this book, the sixth book in the series in terms of publications order, actually should come first as it is set about 10 years earlier than the last to be published. Having said that, Dunnett seems to set each volume in the present day no matter where it should be placed, so this can be a bit confusing, unlike say Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch series, which similarly darted around the character’s timeline but tried much harder to keep it consistent – I previously profiled the series here). Whatever the possible confusion, Bird of Paradise / Tropical Issue makes for a great place to start as ultimately it doesn’t really make much difference – these are all worth reading, no matter the order (or the title).

The Johnson Johnson series:

  • Dolly & the Singing Bird (aka Rum Affair aka The Photogenic Soprano) (1968)
  • Dolly & the Cookie Bird (aka Ibiza Surprise aka Murder in The Round) (1970)
  • Dolly & the Doctor Bird (aka Operation Nassau aka Match for A Murderer) (1971)
  • Dolly & the Starry Bird (aka Roman Nights aka Murder in Focus) (1973)
  • Dolly & the Nanny Bird (aka Split Code) (1976)
  • Dolly & the Bird of Paradise (aka Tropical Issue) (1983)
  • Moroccan Traffic (aka Send a Fax to the Kasbah) (1991)

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘multiple title’ category as the books were not only reissued with new titles but also often had alternative american titles too! And so this concludes the challenge, and just in time! Thanks as always Bev, the challenge hostess with the mostest!


***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Dorothy Dunnett. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to DOLLY AND THE BIRD OF PARADISE (1983) by Dorothy Dunnett

  1. Sergio – Thanks as ever for the thorough and thoughtful review. This looks like a fun series, even if the pacing is a bit uneven. And I do agree that it’s quite innovative to have the sleuth portrayed from different perspectives. Pity about the titles though. It often makes me wonder about alternate titles. In some cases I understand the reason for them, but in others…

    • Thanks Margot – Dunnett was a realy impressive historical novelist – the crime books are a sideline, but a fairly substantial one I think all the same. The re-titling probably suggests that they never quite caught on in the marketplace, and that’s a shame.

  2. tracybham says:

    This sounds like a very interesting series. I had heard of the books but did not know much about them. Thanks for the overview, I will look our for one of the books.

  3. Colin says:

    Never heard of this series before, Sergio. It seems like an interesting idea with the different perspective in each book.

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    I had not heard of this series before. It seems that the protagonist is the same, but the narrator varies from book to book (though always a woman). As Colin says, this is an interesting idea.
    What does the word “Bird” in the title refer to ?

    • In this case the bird refers to a parrot that is part of the plot – the 60s phrase for a young woman was ‘dolly bird’ and so the original British titles were a play on that but inevitably this lost currency as the swinging sixties argot became a bit passé

  5. This was by far my favourite of the books, and I re-read it several times back in the day, and now want to get it out and read it again. Dunnett has an inimitable style – it comes up in her historicals too – it’s hard to describe what is so odd about it. She is VERY good at bringing up a surprise half way through where you realize something has been kept from you. Although on the other hand in this particular one, a murder is far too easy to solve for the experienced crime reader. But that didn’t reduce my pleasure at all. I loved Rita and her interactions with Johnson. It was nice to see her back in the Mooccan one. And now I want to re-read the one about the opera singer. And maybe the nanny one too….

  6. realthog says:

    I’d never heard of these. Many thanks for the introduction!

  7. Bev Hankins says:

    A new series for me as well, Sergio! Thanks for the great review (as always!)–another addition to my TBF (To Be Found) list….

    Congrats on the grand finish to the Bingo game! Glad you were able to finish off both cards. Now to get ready for next year!

  8. Richard says:

    I’m familiar with the series, bought the first 5 when they came out (all with the Dolly titles) but after reading the first two gave the series up, it just didn’t grab me at all. I may still have those paperbacks, or I may have put them on BookSwap. By the way, take it from one who was in college in the Sixties, “dolly” was not “a swinging sixties term for young women”, at least not in any common U.S. usage. Also note when I bought these I was in the habit of buying a bunch in a series before I’d read any. I wasted a lot of cash that way, and I don’t do that any more! I try one or two first.

  9. Sergio, Merry Christmas to you and your family! I hope you have a wonderful holiday season.

    I wish I could add my bit to your fine review of this novel by Dorothy Dunnett but I can’t as I have never read this or anything else by the author. I can’t see how every book in the series can begin with the mention of “bifocals” and yet the quote you reproduced proves it can be done. Johnson Johnson sounds quite the eccentric — is he one?

  10. Yvette says:

    This is an author whose name has always featured in the periphery of my awareness over the years – her historical novels have been highly recommended to my by many bloggers. I’ve always meant to read a couple – maybe this year. At any rate, never knew she’d written mysteries. So thanks for the intro, Sergio. Intriguing that each book is narrated from the point of view of the person ‘in distress’ rather than from the ‘detective’s’. Johnson Johnson, I like it.

    • Thanks Yvette – the historicals are without doubt the main claim to fame – the Lymond series is definitely the place to start if you can:
      The Game of Kings (1961)
      Queens’ Play (1964)
      The Disorderly Knights (1966)
      Pawn in Frankincense (1969)
      The Ringed Castle (1971)
      Checkmate (1975)

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