The Johnson Johnson- Mysteries
"... 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 ..."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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Isabell Marynik, 1999