Having read all of Dorothy Dunnett’s six-volume Lymond Chronicles, eight-volume House of Niccolò series and her standalone novel, King Hereafter, I suppose it was only a matter of time before I picked up one of her Johnson Johnson mystery novels. I wasn’t entirely sure that I was starting with the right book, as Tropical Issue (originally titled Dolly and the Bird of Paradise – Dolly being the name of Johnson’s yacht and the ‘bird’ being the female narrator of the story) was actually the sixth to be published. I had discovered, though, that it is also the first chronologically, so it seemed like a good place to start.
Our narrator is Rita Geddes, a Scottish make-up artist with a punk hairstyle (the book was published in 1983 and I should point out here that unlike the rest of Dunnett’s books, these were contemporary novels rather than historical ones). Rita’s latest client is the journalist and celebrity Natalie Sheridan and at the beginning of the novel Rita is in London preparing Natalie for a photo shoot with the photographer, Ferdy Braithwaite. Ferdy has borrowed his friend Johnson Johnson’s studio flat to use for the session and in this way, Rita meets Johnson for the first time. Not that she learns much about Johnson during this first meeting, other than that he is recuperating after being seriously injured in a plane crash – and that he is a portrait painter, has black hair and wears bifocal glasses.
Joining Natalie for another job on the island of Madeira, Rita learns that the life of her friend and fellow make-up artist Kim-Jim Curtis could be in danger. And when Johnson and his yacht, Dolly, also arrive in Madeira, a mystery unfolds which is complex, surprising and takes the reader through a range of exotic locations from the banana plantations of Barbados to the volcanic craters of St Lucia. As with all good mystery novels, you’ll need to pay attention as things which may seem irrelevant at first turn out to be important later in the book.
I liked the character of Rita from the beginning. She has a very distinctive narrative voice, with her strong personality coming across in every sentence – how can you not love a character who thinks, when disturbed by an intruder in the night, “I rather wished I was wearing something handier than a quilt, but if all else failed, I could smother the guy if I caught him”? As for Johnson, it was difficult not to want to make comparisons with Dunnett’s other heroes, Lymond, Nicholas and Thorfinn, but really, while they do all share some characteristics, there are also some big differences between them. However, I do think there were a lot of similarities in the way Dunnett introduces his character to us – viewing him only through the eyes of other people (in this case Rita), with his true thoughts and motives often being obscured and misinterpreted.
While I love all of Dorothy Dunnett’s other books, I can’t really say that I loved this one – but I did enjoy it. It took me a while to really get into the story, but after a few chapters I was won over by a wild and wonderful sledge race to rival the ostrich ride in Niccolò Rising. It made a nice change, in a way, to be able to read a Dunnett novel without becoming too emotionally involved in the lives of the characters! I don’t feel the same compulsion to immediately read the rest of the series as I did with Lymond and Niccolo, but it’s good to know that there are still another six books to look forward to.