Dorothy Dunnett, Roman Nights

One of the things I’m trying to do this year is to keep a reading journal. I started one last year in March, when I stumbled across the lovely reading journal produced by Leuchtturm, but abandoned it in April (understandable in a way, since in April things turned rather bleak). I took it up again in late December and so far, have managed to stick with it. *knocking on wood*

I like the layout of the Leuchtturm book: apart from lines where you can note down the title, author, date of publication, genre, and date when you read the book, there’s plenty of space for notes and quotations, and they even have included some very convenient boxes for your rating. AND there’s an alphabetical register at the end of the book. As I said, very convenient all around.

I don’t just note down new books I’ve read, but also re-reads. In an effort to cut back on my book-spending, I’ve done a lot of re-reading this year (but never fear, I made up for that by falling in love with the books produced by the Folio Society *sigh*). A couple of days ago I found out that Dorothy Dunnett’s Johnson Johnson mysteries (or the Dolly mysteries) have been released as e-books. (Wheeee!) As a rabid Dunnett fangirl I simply had to check them out, never mind that I already have them as print books. (Some of those are pretty grubby, though, and in one case, I had to cut the corners of some pages because of the truly disgusting stuff sticking to them.) (Really, what do some people do to their books?!?!?!)

I decided to get the Kindle version of Roman Nights (or Dolly and the Starry Bird). Here’s the blurb:

Ruth Russell, an astronomer working at the Maurice Frazer Observatory, is enjoying herself in Rome – that is, until her lover, Charles Digham, a fashion photographer and writer of obituary verses, has his camera stolen. The thief ends up as a headless corpse in the zoo park tolleta. Johnson Johnson, enigmatic portrait painter, spy and sleuth, is in Rome to paint a portrait of the Pope and is therefore on hand to investigate in one of Dunnett’s usual thrilling and convoluted plots that grips the reader from cover to cover. There is something far more deadly at stake than just the secrets of a couture house …

As all of the Dolly books, Roman Nights has a female first person narrator (in this case, Ruth), and the opening sentence concerns the bifocals Johnson Johnson is wearing:

I have nothing, even yet, against bifocal glasses. I know some very nice poufs and a couple of stockbrockers and a man who keeps a horn moustache comb in his jumpsuit. I’m a girl who doesn’t shock easily.
Or so I thought until I first met Johnson Johnson, which was outside the Rome zoo in November. 
He was there because he was waiting for me, although I didn’t know it. I was there on a day’s leave from the Frazer Observatory. If I’d stayed on leave, none of it might have happened.

And so it starts. All of the Dolly books are fairly eccentric (think balloons filled with lethal gas), with impossible twists and turns. The “hero” of the series, Johnson Johnson, portrait painter and (former) secret agent, often stays in the background and we only get to see him through the eyes of others (which is typical for Dunnett’s heroes). As with all of Dunnett’s novels, one of the great delights of the book is how language is used. Dunnett has a way with words that is awe-inspiring: both witty and intellectually challenging. As  reader you really have to stay on your toes. But you’re rewarded with gems like this one:

Every ruin [in Rome] is packed like a biscuit box.


The railings of the Palazzo Barberini are upheld by marble weightlifters with beards and grimaces of incipient hernia.


In Rome, there is a pathological shortage of small coins. For change, the little shops tend to use candy.

Aren’t these delicious?

I gave the book four stars. It is somewhat lengthy, but it is full of wonderfully eccentric scenes and it has a very nice twist at the end.