Return of a great Scot Author: Dorothy Dunnett's historical novels have been republished, and the devoted fans of Francis Crawford of Lymond couldn't be happier.

November 10, 1997|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

Which child dies in the human chess game in the palace in Istamboul?

If you're already a fan of Scottish writer Dorothy Dunnett, you might expect that to be the most-asked question about her series of six historical novels featuring 16th-century adventurer Francis Crawford of Lymond.

If you're not familiar with this prolific writer's work -- 21 novels in 36 years -- you might wonder why on Earth hundreds of thousands of readers around the world either haven't figured out the answer yet, or believe they have and want to go over it again and again in discussion groups, in the mail and across the Internet.

If you've never heard of Dunnett, that's OK too; she's never been a household name like John Grisham or Jeffrey Archer, never cracked the best seller lists on either side of the Atlantic.

She fills a niche within the niche of historical fiction, and Bill Marshall, of Scottish booksellers James Thin, who most likely sell more Dunnett books than anyone else, says, "She's probably never going to be mass-market material. But for any serious readers of historical fiction," she's a top choice. "Most of her fans are incredibly devoted to her."

No one is more surprised by the passion of her following than Dunnett, who admits she never set out to be a writer of fiction.

"I thought I wanted to be a painter," she says.

She grew up in Edinburgh reading the kind of romantic historical fiction her mother liked -- "The Scarlet Pimpernel," "Scaramouche" -- but by the time she was an adult, she had read just about everything in the genre.

"There were only so many, you see. So my husband said: 'Why don't you write your own?' "

So Dunnett sat down in 1961 and wrote "The Game of Kings," the first of the Lymond series. She knew she wanted to write about the Renaissance, about Scotland and Europe, and she knew she wanted to follow one character in close detail over a period of years. She wanted the history to be accurate and to drive the story, but she didn't want it to overwhelm the narrative. "I decided I wanted this stunning central character," she says, and so Francis Crawford -- beautiful, brilliant, arrogant, vulnerable Francis Crawford -- was born.

For her readers, it was love at first read.

Now all six Lymond books have been republished in a Vintage quality paperback edition, so a new generation of readers can meet, be irritated by, and ultimately fall in love with the charismatic Lymond.

Dunnett, who travels extensively for her research but who rarely does book tours outside of Britain, is visiting eight U.S. cities this fall to meet her fans and promote the new releases. She is 74 now, petite, bright-eyed and nimble as someone decades younger. She is unassuming, funny and shrewd; devoted readers will be unable to avoid comparisons with her character Sybilla, Lymond's charming and long-suffering mother.

The last book in her series, "Checkmate," came out in 1975, meaning her early readers had to wait 14 years to find out how Lymond's story ended.

"To see them like this, all six at once, is stunning," Dunnett says.

At a hotel in downtown Washington recently, Dunnett sat with tea and chatted with a small group of fans and journalists for two hours before speeding off to an appearance at a K Street bookstore.

Dunnett talked about how she writes -- from midnight "straight through the night" -- and told a "terribly unmotherly" story about her oldest son, Mungo, who once suggested that if she didn't want him interrupting her writing, she should put a bit of mohair in his mouth -- so she did.

Having children is a wonderful laboratory for writing, she says. "All of the children in the books talk like Mungo and [younger son] Ninian."

Considering the meticulous research that goes into her novels, most people are surprised to find that Dunnett does not have an academic background. "Edinburgh is a marvelous place for research," she says. "I learned on the job."

She also credits her husband Alistair's position as editor of The Scotsman newspaper for bringing the world to her door. She was able to meet a wide range of people socially, she says. As a result, "I knew how politicians would think, I knew how great landowners would think."

Dunnett also worked for the British civil service, and did indeed become a portrait painter. "I liked it. You get to know people rather well when they're sitting for you."

She was in her 30s when she began writing fiction, and she considers the late start an advantage, considering the kind of research-intensive, carefully layered narrative her books present.

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

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