Eight years ago today, Scottish historical novelist Dorothy Dunnett died. The first of her books I encountered was Queens’ Play, the second novel in the Lymond Chronicles. I had no idea what was going on—the hero is in disguise, so for the first hundred pages or so I couldn’t tell the good guys from the bad even with a program (if the lengthy list of characters can be so designated)—but I couldn’t put it down. Maybe I fell for what Yeats called “the fascination of what’s difficult,” but in the end it was completely worth it. I went back to the library and found the first book, The Game of Kings. All the pieces started falling into place.
For about twenty years, I seemed to be the only person in the world who had ever heard of or read anything by Dunnett. Even when I recommended her novels to friends, the fascination didn’t seem to take. Except on my sister, who, being related to me, is of course unusually perspicacious. In 1994, I joined the Internet and it occurred to me to look for fellow Dunnett-readers online. Oh—there they were! Over the course of the next several years, as Dunnett’s House of Niccolo books were being published, the enjoyment of reading them was enhanced by having people to discuss and speculate with, even if they were scattered from London to Tokyo.
About a week after her death, my sister and I were in Dublin with about forty* other devoted readers of Dunnett’s fiction, most of whom we had become acquainted with originally online through Dunnett e-mail discussion groups. When Dorothy Dunnett toured the US in 2000 to promote the final novel in the eight-book House of Niccolo series, Gemini, we had met a large number of these people for the first time at an event in Philadelphia, and we had met the author herself. We braved a trans-Atlantic flight just two months after 9/11 to see some of these people again, and—we had expected—to meet Dorothy again. There’s no good time to lose someone you admire and respect, even less someone you know and love (and some at this gathering did know Dorothy Dunnett well), but it is good to be with friends at such a time.
Dunnett’s novels are difficult and rewarding. They fulfill at least one criterion for the definition of “classic”—they reward repeated re-readings and connect to many other intriguing paths. Elspeth Morrison worked with Dunnett on two Companions to the novels, which identify historical characters and events, translate or give sources for the many literary quotations. In Dunnett’s obituary, Morrison quoted Sir Lewis Robertson on Dunnett’s books:
Dorothy Dunnett’s works called forth admiration, awe, bewilderment, almost reverence for the scale, the ingenuity of the plots, the unique sweep of the narrative, the quick felicity of the language and so much else.
She was the best.
*Estimated number of attendees corrected as per Simon’s comment.