Dorothy Dunnett: OPERATION NASSAU

It is no secret that I am a huge Dorothy Dunnett fan. CHECKMATE is the only book which has ever made my stomach hurt. And with the exception of Auguste Lechner’s DIE NIEBELUNGEN, I’ve never cried as much as at the end of this book. Ahhh, Dorothy Dunnett, master-storyteller with a kind of meandering, yet somewhat brittle style; sharp, dry wit; and a seemingly endless knowledge of her settings. She challenges her reader: you have to be quick to keep up with the author and her characters.

At the moment I’m re-reading OPERATION NASSAU, one of her Johnson Johnson mysteries (or, if you prefer the original British titles, DOLLY & THE DOCTOR BIRD from the Dolly mysteries). Each of these starts with a sentence about bifocals (Johnson’s) and is told by a female first person-narrator (different narrator for each story). I bought my copy of OPERATION NASSAU seven years ago in a UBS in Galway, Ireland, where I spent my rather wet year abroad. It was the first of the Johnson Johnson mysteries I managed to find, and it shared a shelf with the complete set of the Lymond Chronicles (I simply couldn’t face spending eight months without Francis Crawford of Lymond) and my growing collection of the House of Niccolo. Now, after seven years, the contents of OPERATION NASSAU have become sufficiently hazy in my mind to make this a thoroughly enjoyable re-read as I’ve absolutely no clue who the villain might be. 🙂


The cover blurb for OPERATION reads as follows:

Asthma forces Dr. B. Douglas MacRannoch’s father to leave Scotland and seek refuge in the Bahamas. Such is the loyalty of his daughter, that she follows him and takes up a post as a medical officer in Nassau — only to find that, far from tussling with exotic bacteria, she is sucked into international espionage.

Enter Johnson Johnson on his elegant yacht Dolly …

Dunnett has drawn wonderfully eccentric characters: her heroine is not only called Beltanno, but is also such a stickler to control and order that she is in many ways socially inept. The bane of her life is her father, The MacRannoch, and his fondness of the widow of some Indian Prince, his plans of organizing a MacRannoch clan gathering as well as his dream to built a bridge between MacRannoch castle and the shore:

It is not only that he is a martyr to an abysmal and incurable seacksickness. There is a family legend tha thte thirteenth MacRannoch of MacRannoch, on building the castle, did indeed achieve such a bridge, with the helpf of the fairies. and what the thirteenth MacRannoch could do, the forty-fifth is determined to surpass.

It has brought him nothing but trouble. The seabed is deep; the currents strong and irregular. Every bridge my father has built so far has been a failure; and indeed his personal involvment on the day the fifth bridge fell down resulted in tragedy. Two days later, the melancholy news was broken to my father in hospital that I, then a child at school, was and must remain for ever the sole heir of the MacRannochs.

His asthma dates from that day.

Wheee! Isn’t this superbly done?

So, no-nonsense Beltanno has been sent on an assignment to New York, and is on her way back to Nassau, when she is called to treat a man, Sir Bartholomew Edgecombe, for suspected food-poisoning. Sir Bartholomew has been poisoned all right — with arsenic. Beltanno misses her plane, spends the night at a hotel, where she receives a threatening phone call. The mysterious caller warns her off helping Sir Bartholomew in the future. Nevertheless, she does exactly that: the next day she accompanies the Edgecombes back to Nassau. Again, somebody attempts to poison her patient, who asks her to bring a letter to his friend Johnson Johnson before he is cartered off to hospital once more.

And thus, Beltanno’s neat and ordered life is thrown off the track: soon she is chasing would-be murderers through night-darkened Nassau, is dragged along on a girly day with her father’s woman friend, discovers the joys and dangers of different alcoholic beverages, bets on a dog in a dog race, is assaulted and gets her hair whacked off.

The story, it soon becomes clear, is not only about unmasking a murderer, but also about the narrator’s growth as a human being. (Or rather about her becoming a normal human being. *g*)
OPERATION NASSAU is an utterly delightful book!