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Obituaries

Dorothy Dunnett, 78; Historical Fiction Writer

November 16, 2001|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dorothy Dunnett, a best-selling Scottish novelist who was widely regarded as one of the finest living writers of historical fiction, has died. She was 78.

Dunnett, whose two series of novels set during the Renaissance earned her a loyal following on both sides of the Atlantic, died in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Nov. 9.

The author of 23 books, Dunnett is best known for her six-book series "The Lymond Chronicles" and the eight volumes of "The House of Niccolo," whose final installment, "Gemini," was published last year.

Awarded an Order of the British Empire for her services to literature in 1992, Dunnett was known for the complexities of plot and character, rich historical detail and narrative pace of her novels.

Historical novelist Cecilia Holland has called "The Game of Kings," the first novel in Dunnett's "The Lymond Chronicles," a "masterpiece of historical fiction, a pyrotechnic blend of passionate scholarship and high-speed storytelling soaked with the scents and colors and sounds and combustible emotions of the 16th century feudal Scotland that is its ultimate hero."

Holland described Dunnett's romantic hero, Francis Crawford of Lymond, as a charming rogue of an outlaw with a bitter, biting wit.

In an essay in the New York Times Book Review last year, writer Anne Malcolm wrote that the six "Lymond Chronicle" novels "are almost certainly destined to be counted among the classics of popular fiction."

Commenting on the novels' erudition, Malcolm wrote that "Dunnett's characters are apt to address one another in quotations from Renaissance verse [in several languages, generally untranslated], and the ground is thick with classical allusions. Using a vocabulary that sometimes outstrips the resources of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the books lavishly evoke the intellectual furnishings of the 16th century. To this, Dunnett has allied a painter's eye for gorgeous detail."

The daughter of a mining engineer, Dunnett was born Dorothy Halliday in Dunfermline, Scotland, on Aug. 25, 1923, and grew up in Edinburgh. Trained as a singer and a painter, she worked as a press officer in Britain's Ministry of Information during World War II. In 1946, she married her wartime boss, journalist Alastair Dunnett, who became editor of the Scotsman newspaper and later a director of Thomson North Sea Oil.

While working as a successful portrait painter in Edinburgh in the 1950s, Dunnett continued to devour the historical novels she began reading as a child. After she had read just about everything in the genre, her husband suggested, "Why don't you write your own?"

In 1961, when Dunnett was 38, "The Game of Kings" was published in the United States by Putnam after being rejected by five British publishers.

In 1986, with the publication of "Niccolo Rising," Dunnett began her second series of historical novels, which spanned the Mediterranean world of France, Venice and Cyprus.

From the start, Dunnett was known for the wealth of historical detail that filled her work.

Over the years, she scoured 1,300 reference books, many in French, Latin and German, while doing research for her novels. She traveled widely in her research, often running into fans who, with "books in hand," were on the trail of her heroes' adventures.

Given the exhaustive historical research that went into her carefully layered narratives, Dunnett considered her late start as a novelist an advantage.

"I think it's difficult to write my kind of fiction until you're middle-aged," she told the Baltimore Sun in 1997. "You've got to be old enough to have met all sorts of people, and to understand what they're about."

When she wasn't writing historical novels, Dunnett wrote thrillers. Seven books featured a continuing character named Johnson Johnson, a bifocal-wearing agent disguised as an American portrait painter who owns a yacht named Dolly. Each book was narrated by a different narrator, always a woman.

Dunnett also continued to paint portraits, completing her last commission in 1996.

Dunnett's husband died in 1998. She is survived by her sons, Ninian and Mungo; and two grandchildren.

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