Ruth Russell, an astronomer working at the Maurice Frazer Observatory, is enjoying herself in Rome - that is, until her lover, Charles Digham, a fashion photographer and writer of obituary verses, has his camera stolen. The thief ends up as a headless corpse in the zoo park tolleta. Johnson Johnson, enigmatic portrait painter, spy and sleuth, is in Rome to paint a portrait of the Pope and is therefore on hand to investigate in one of Dunnett's usual thrilling and convoluted plots that grips the reader from cover to cover. There is something far more deadly at stake than just the secrets of a couture house ...
Dorothy, Lady Dunnett, was born in Dunfermline, Scotland in 1923, the only daughter of an engineer, Alexander Halliday, and his wife Dorothy. Whilst gifted academically and musically, she was not encouraged to further her talents by attending university, and instead joined the civil service in Scotland as an assistant press officer.
In 1946, she married Alastair Dunnett, who was at the time the chief press officer to the Secretary of State for Scotland. He went on to become editor of 'The Scotsman' newspaper, whilst she later worked on a statistics handbook for the Board of Trade. After a brief spell in Glasgow, the couple settled in Edinburgh where their home became a centre for hospitality and entertaining, mostly in support of Scottish art and culture. Dunnett had also taken evening classes at the Edinburgh College of Art and the Glasgow School of Art, and from 1950 onwards she established a prominent career as a portrait painter, being exhibited at both the Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Academy. She was also an accomplished sculptress.
Her interest in writing developed during the 1950's. Her own tastes took her to historical novels and it was her husband who eventually suggested she write one of her own, after she had complained of running out of reading material. The result was 'The Game of Kings', an account of political and military turmoil in sixteenth-century Scotland. Whilst turned down for publication in the UK, it was eventually published in the USA where it became an instant best seller. Other titles, such as the 'Lymond Chronicles' and 'House of Niccolo' series followed and which established her international reputation.
She also successfully turned her hand to crime, with the 'Johnson Johnson' series. He is an eccentric artist, famous for bifocals, and of course amateur detective. All of the titles in the series somehow also feature the yacht 'Dolly', despite ranging widely in location from Scotland, to Ibiza, Rome, Marrakesh, Canada, Yugoslavia, Madeira and The Bahamas. There is plenty of sailing lore for the enthusiast, but not so much it detracts from the stories genre; crime. Each of them is told by a woman whose profession explains her role in the mystery and we learn very little about Johnson himself, save for the fact he is somewhat dishevelled in appearance.
Dorothy Dunnett somehow fitted in her many careers and voluntary work, along with supporting her husband's endeavours, yet still found the time to correspond widely with her readers from all over the world, and was often delighted to meet with them personally. She held the rare distinction of having a Dorothy Dunnett Readers Association formed during her lifetime and collaborated with it as much as possible. A writer who has been described as one of great wit, charm, and humanity, yet whose work displayed toughness, precision, and humour, she was appointed to an OBE in 1992 for services to literature and became Lady Dunnett in 1995 when her husband was knighted. She died in 2001, being survived by her two sons; Ninian and Mungo.