Lymond and Niccolò: Dorothy Dunnett

Niccolo set

The House of Niccolo

I was inspired to take down my Dorothy Dunnett books when I read Susan Condon’s recent blog post about re-reading. Dunnett (1923-2001) has written two brilliant historical series, one set in the sixteenth century, the Francis Crawford of Lymond series (1961-1975) and the House of Niccolò series (1986-2000), which takes place roughly a century earlier. In between times, she has also written the Johnson Johnson series of mystery novels and the book that Dunnett considers her masterpiece, King Hereafter (1982).

A school friend, who gave me a copy of Checkmate (paperback 1976) for my birthday one year, unintentionally began my subsequent relationship with Dunnett’s books. My friend Julie bought me the book, knowing that I liked historical fiction, yet not realising that it was the final part of the Lymond series. I did actually read Checkmate before, rather perversely, going back to the beginning with The Game of Kings (1961). I gradually built up the rest of the Lymond saga, acquiring a couple as I recall from a second-hand bookshop in Cardiff.

But here I have to make the shameful confession that I never actually (for various complicated reasons) finished reading the Niccolò series. The last two volumes, Caprice and Rondo and Gemini languish unread on my shelves to this very hour. I have long promised myself a truly mammoth Niccolò binge; ideally this would mean returning to the beginning and starting all over again. I think however, for present practical purposes I will have to content myself merely with backtracking as far as To Lie with Lions and going on from there. Technically these books do not come under the remit of the Landing blog, as they live in our bedroom, but I may give myself dispensation on that point (after all all’s fair in love and reading). And it would be wonderful to return to that world for a summer break from the twenty-first century.

Dunnett Society Logo

Dorothy Dunnett Logo

Because of mentioning my idea of returning to them this summer, I discovered via Twitter that a Dorothy Dunnett Society exists which publishes a newsletter called Whispering Gallery for members. The society is actually a registered charity under Scottish law, founded in 2001 by Dorothy Dunnett. The society aims to promote interest and research into the periods she wrote about and to support the cataloguing and preservation of her papers and research materials, which Dunnett bequeathed to the National Library of Scotland:
“•advance the education of the public concerning the history,  politics, culture and religion of the 11th, 15th and 16th centuries by promoting the study of and research into such subjects generally and into such subjects particularly as they relate to the works of Dorothy Dunnett, and to disseminate to the public the results of such research.
 •foster the appreciation and recognition of the literary works of Dorothy Dunnett.
 •ensure that the manuscripts, letters, reference materials and research papers of Dorothy Dunnett are preserved and are accessible.”

It is incredible to realise just how many Dunnett fans are out there. To finish up with here is a a testimonial from a Dorothy fan. I came across this short clip about Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series on YouTube, which was recorded in a bookstore in the States. The interviewee, Anna Kaufman, also discusses another Dorothy, the crime writer Dorothy L Sayers, whom I may well feature on the Landing in the future. There is also an excellent interview with Dorothy Dunnett on the Society’s website, recorded in 1989 for Off the Page.

Now, I must just go and plan the summer’s reading. What will you be reading (or re-reading) this summer?

Video credit: Uploaded to YouTube 24 March 2010

Anna Kaufman, Diesel Bookstore, Brentwood

Logo: taken from the Dorothy Dunnett site

Photo: from Amazon (for technical reasons: camera not charged!)

On final, final note I have come across The Idle Woman’s Literary blog who is also a great Dorothy Dunnett fan if you want to read up a bit. But watch out for unintended spoilers.


16 comments on “Lymond and Niccolò: Dorothy Dunnett

  1. Patti Evans says:

    The Lymond series has to be one of my all time favourite reads. Time to read it again methinks after a 30 year gap.


    • Chris Mills says:

      Hi, thanks for commenting. I reckon that if I do manage to get through the rest of Niccolo this summer, then just maybe I might get around to Lymond next year. Last summer was the summer of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, so I seem to be developing a pattern of historical summer reading…Cheers!


  2. Kate Alexis says:

    Holy smokes! Niccolo is my FAVE. I’m re-reading them now for the 3rd time. I also started out of order withe The Unicorn Hunt. I would say that you should start from the beginning as they are so good. I’m currently on the third, which I must admit is the one I find the most difficult, but every time I discover something new. Don’t forget that the beginning holds the incredible interactions of Katelina and Niccolo.


    • Chris Mills says:

      Hi, thanks for commenting. It certainly helps if you read both series in the right order as there is so much detail in them! I’m glad I started at the right end with Niccolo, though having put them aside for a few years, it is going to mean a bit of work getting to grips with all of the characters and plot twists again.


  3. Rwthless says:

    I have read both series at least once, Niccolo as it was being published. She published ‘King Hereafter’ on my birthday and I went off to town and bought it immediately. I could never enjoy the Johnson Johnson series because a) of the silly titles and b) because the forgiveable flaws in Lymond and Niccolo books becoming obvious and unconvincing in Johnson Johnson.
    Don’t get me wrong, I do love the books but occasionally I cringe at some sentences that no sensible editor should have allowed to pass.

    I encountered Lymond first in “Queen’s Play”, which I think was probably the best of the lot and was mildly irritated by the end of Checkmate which could have been adjusted to give a slightly more sensible motive for such a delightful heroine as Sybilla. It does explain Lymond’s estrangement from her.

    Niccolo is wonderful, and I am again working my way through Race of Scorpions, but it is on the bed at home and I am away at the moment. I’d agree that it is the most impenetrable of the series, but encourage the reviewer to read Capriccio and Rondo and Gemini. One of the strengths of the two series is the ability of each main character to attract and keep so much excellence of ability among their adherents. Wonderful characters like John Le Grant and Archie Abernethy who never disappoint.

    May I refer C15th aficionados to “Kings of Albion” by Julian Rathbone. No more reason than that it is also set during the Wars of the Roses, but the more we know the better.

    In King Hereafter, one of the most interesting aspects is the internationalism of the main characters. Everyone is multilingual and works anywhere in Europe without any major linguistic difficulties. The notorious English incapacity for languages is often magnified out of all proportion, and our facility with non-European languages often goes unregarded. I love the book anyway, and recommend it..


    • Chris Mills says:

      Thanks for your comments. I haven’t read King Hereafter – another one for the ‘to be read’ pile and I agree that the Johnson Johnson series don’t stand up as well as the historical series. Niccolo is certainly my favourite character – though his friends and associates are fascinating too. My mission for this summer has to be to finish the series!


  4. Leslie G says:

    You are not the only one not to finish the Niccolo series. I’ve re-read Lymond many, many times (read The Ringed Castle first, and The Game of Kings last!), and King Hereafter is a perennial favourite. I stalled around book four with Niccolo, I’m afraid. Maybe next year!


    • Chris Mills says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only person! I do really want to finish the Niccolo series (and it’s certainly overdue) but I’m almost afraid of beginning because I know I will want to stay inside the book until I’ve finished and not come out for work, shopping etc!


  5. Mickey says:

    If anyone is interested, there is a reread, or actually this list DDANZ is trying to read the LC from a first time perspective and they are about half way through GofK.


  6. Leander says:

    Thanks so much for the link! Yep, I always try to flag spoilers but with Dunnett it’s a nightmare as her plotting is so intricate that you simply can’t avoid them sometimes. 🙂 I always recommend that if you haven’t read any of her books yet, you should do what I did and just avoid *everything* – forums, posts, the Dunnett Society website – until you’ve read them, because you never know when something spoilerish might creep in. 🙂

    Like you, I was so thrilled to discover that there are so many people out there who love Dunnett. I had the pleasure of meeting the London branch of the Dorothy Dunnett Society for International Dorothy Dunnett Day last year and they were an absolutely delightful bunch of people. I would say that Lymond (as a series and, probably, as a character) is much more engaging than Niccolo and I agree with what some commenters imply here that it’s not quite as all-consuming a read. Mind you, Dunnett is still head-and-shoulders above virtually any other historical novelist I’ve read!

    Again, thanks for the link, and I’m thrilled to have discovered your blog. (I’ve got King Hereafter on my to-read list as well!)


    • Chris Mills says:

      Thanks for commenting, (your blog is a great read btw) – I’ve certainly discovered a whole new world of DD fans. Now all I need to do is to decide when I’m going to embark upon my Niccolo catching-up challenge! I’ll hope to have news to post up on that score in the summer.


  7. Patti Evans says:

    I think the comment above is spam. It seems to have nothing whatever to do with DD.


    • Chris Mills says:

      Yes, you’re right. It slipped through the net I’m afraid. Thanks very much – I’ve deleted it now.


  8. Patti Evans says:

    Another spam comment – they are persistent. I notice them particularly because I run another blog site and have seen em before. In the end I had to alter the site so that only people who were logged in could comment.


    • Chris Mills says:

      Yes, I’m afraid I may have to come to that course of action. Thankfully Askimet seems to catch most of the spam or else I’d be tearing my hair out! I try to be vigilant but it’s hard to be quick enough to delete them. Thanks, Chris.


  9. […] pressing needs of the un-read. I am also reminded that despite reading the first three volumes of Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolò series in 1993, I still have not completed the series…maybe this will be the year to […]


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