The Johnson Johnson- Mysteries

Bi-focal Glasses, Yachts and Cases of Death

"... He was difficult to place. Not, my God, a man about town, with that green knitted pullover and those socks and the pipe sticking out of one pocket. But a man who went to a really good barber about three weeks less often than he should, and who could afford a rented flat in the Square ..."
(Dolly and the Singing Bird/Rum Affair)
Johnson Johnson, "fore and aft exactly the same" (Ibiza Surprise), successful portrait painter, bum-about-the-world, and owner of the stylish yacht Dolly, always turns up, with his rather unkempt appearance and his bifocal glasses, whenever information is being waylaid, smuggling is underfoot, or a corpse disrupts the normal order of business.

Ajacchio/photo M. Däuwel
"I've no commitments and no boss and no office. But if a key man, somewhere, develops unsavoury habits and starts throwing off stress signs like a Catherine wheel, I'm the bloke they ask to cruise around, painting, before the gunmen have to start moving in..." (Dolly and the Singing Bird/Rum Affair)

Dorothy Dunnett's spy thrillers about Johnson Johnson are set in the present day. They deal less with political events than with current trends of outlook and fashion, and these they reflect ironically. They are dotted with references to the cultural scene, the jet set, or religious and social rituals.

The narrative "I" is always a woman. And again, all the narrators are typical Dunnett woman characters: independent, self-assured, and intelligent. They captivate by their extravagance or their obstinacy. Singer, chef, doctor, astronomer, nanny, or make-up artist, all are sharp-tongued and quick on the uptake. And thanks to their professional success, they can easily lend their skills to cloak-and-dagger work.

Corsica/photo M. Däuwel
We get to know Johnson Johnson from the point of view of these women. Every story begins with a sentence about bifocals, always the first attribute of his they perceive. As the story unfolds, Johnson Johnson himself remains mostly in the background, but he is a decisive figure in every plot. The whole series can even be seen as his own story, hidden between the lines, with new facets continually added from a new point of view.

So Johnson Johnson too remains a typical Dunnett hero, always shown only through the gaze of others. The first-person narrative format renders all impressions subjective. Without the ultimate authority of an omniscient narrator to point the way past false scents, misleading hints and premature conclusions, the reader is forced to pay closer and more precise attention to the brain-teasing puzzles Dunnett so artistically delights in setting.

Even the locations of the action -- exotic countries, holiday resort paradises, fantasy islands, jet-set playgrounds -- underline the rather surreal atmosphere of the novels. In such settings the characters can behave in extraordinary ways without seeming at all unusual.

Cote d'Azur/photo M. Däuwel
In Split Code"/Dolly and the Nanny Bird we get for the first time a glimpse of Johnson's past. The narrator, Joanna Emerson, has known him from childhood, since her father, Sir Bernard Emerson, is to Johnson what "M" is to James Bond: his boss and superior officer. Joanna, a trained nanny, is likewise involved in the affairs of the secret service.
One of the most multifaceted books of the series is the next, Dolly and the Bird of Paradise/Tropical Issue, which is chronologically the first. It takes place about ten years before the last book, and starts off just after a murder attempt aimed at Johnson and his wife, in which he is seriously wounded and his wife is killed.
Tropical Issue is narrated by one of the most engaging characters of the entire series, Marguerite "Rita" Geddes, make-up artist and dyslectic. Her path seems to cross Johnson's by coincidence; but in fact, unbeknownst to her, the whole affair is set off by the Emersons. She becomes involved in murder when her best friend is sacrificed. But solving the case helps jolt Johnson out of his paralysis following the shock of his wife's tragic death.

Cote d'Azur/photo M. Däuwel
The books were not written in the order of their internal timeline. Tropical Issue, the next-to-last written, is the first chronologically, since it takes place shortly after the attempt to kill Johnson. The four next books, all written earlier -- Rum Affair, Ibiza Surprise, Operation Nassau and Roman Nights -- can be read in any order. The events in Split Code take place a few months before those of Moroccan Traffic, the last in the series so far.
Moroccan Traffic demands a sequel. It takes place 10 years after Tropical Issue. Johnson Johnson is now in his late thirties, and we at least discover that he was formerly in the secret service of the Navy and that he comes from a well-to-do family. The narrator, Wendy Helmann, a secretary, accompanies her boss to Morocco for business negotiations. Rita is also on the scene again, and Johnson finds out that two of the bad guys he's following (it's industrial espionage this time) had a share in the original murder attempt against him.

Whether Johnson Johnson really needs his bifocals now probably won't never be settled.

Calvi/photo M. Däuwel
English Titles / (US-Titles) / German Titles

  • Dolly and the Singing Bird or Rum Affair / Photogenic Soprano (US-Titel) / Dolly und der Singvogel
  • Dolly and the Cookie Bird or Ibiza Surprise / Murder in The Round (US-Titel) / Dolly und der Lockvogel
  • Dolly and the Doctor Bird or Operation Nassau / Match for A Murderer (US-Titel) / Dolly und der Todesvogel
  • Dolly and the Starry Bird or Roman Nights /Murder in Focus (US-Titel) / Dolly und der Nachtvogel
  • Dolly and the Nanny Bird or Split Affair / Dolly und der Eisvogel
  • Dolly and the Bird of Paradise or Tropical Issue / Dolly und der Paradiesvogel
  • Morrocan Traffic / Send A Fax to the Kasbah (US-Titel) / Tödliches Fax

    Isabell Marynik, 1999
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