Dolly and the Bird of Paradise, Dorothy Dunnett
Dorothy Dunnett used to relax from writing her intricately-plotted, multi-character historical series with urbane, inscrutable heroes by writing intricately-plotted, multi-character mysteries with an urbane, inscrutable hero. The central character of the Dolly books is Johnson Johnson, a tall man with a set of bifocal glasses that effectively screen his face and his thoughts. He is a world-renowned portrait painter (like Lady Dunnett herself), and a yatchsman, whose boat Dolly plays a big part in the series. Most of the stories are set on the water, in locations like Ibizia, the Hebrides, and in this book, Madeira and the Caribbean (idyllic settings for tax-deductable research, as Lady Dunnett admitted). For Johnson, both his work and his hobby provide cover for his other career, in British Intelligence.
Each of the seven Dolly books has a different narrator, a young woman, the "birds" of the American titles (each book has at least two titles, and some have three - this book was also published as Tropical Issue). Most of them are stand-alones, and except for two they can be read in any order, keeping a couple of things in mind. First, the publication dates don't match the internal time-line of the story. This book, Bird of Paradise, was the sixth published (in 1983), but it's the first of the series, filling out the background hinted at in the previous books. And each book is of the time it was written. So Dolly and the Singing Bird, the first published in 1968, is very much a book of the 1960s (Johnson does the Watusi!), as Bird of Paradise is of the early 1980s, yet the action in Bird of Paradise takes place before Singing Bird. It may sound confusing, but it really matters just with the last two books, the only two that are connected.
The "bird" of this book is Rita Geddes, who arrives at Johnson's studio flat one day. A well-respected make-up artist, working with private clients as well as in film and TV, she is there to prepare TV personality Natalie Sheridan for a photo shoot. The photographer Ferdy Braithwaite has borrowed the flat because his own studio is being re-wired. The flat's owner is nowhere to be seen. He is recovering from serious injuries sustained in a plane crash. His wife Judith, who was travelling with him in the private plane, was killed, along with the crew. Disregarding his physical and emotional condition, Natalie forces an introduction on him, bringing Rita in as well. Later, they meet again on Maderia, where Rita is now working for Natalie at her villa.
I don't want to say too much about the plot, because the fun of the Johnson books is meeting the woman telling the story, figuring out who she is, and watching her try to figure Johnson out, while a complicated plot involving international intrigue unspools around them. Johnson can be as opaque and maddening as Lymond at his worst, though the narrators have their own secrets too. He shares with Lymond not only a love of the sea and ships, but also cat-like reflexes and the skillful handling of weapons. He has a caustic tongue and a wicked sense of humor, which sometimes finds expression in pranks to rival the roof-top chase in Lyon or Nicholas's theft of the ostrich. Unlike Lady Dunnett's other heroes, though, he seems to lack a real fashion sense, frequently appearing in elderly cardigans and woolly vests that he is accused of knitting himself.
It's been a good while since I've read these books, and I really enjoyed meeting Rita and Johnson again. In fact, I might find myself back on Dolly again before too long.