Sunday, July 7, 2013

Diagnosing a doctor

Dolly and the Doctor Bird, Dorothy Dunnett

This is the third book in Dorothy Dunnett's series of mysteries and espionage thrillers centered around Johnson Johnson, whose career as a portrait painter of international repute provides cover for his work in British Intelligence.  It was published in 1971, and like other books in the series, under more than one title: besides Doctor Bird, it is also known as Match for a Murderer and Operation Nassau

As that last title suggests, this book is set mainly in the Bahamas, with side trips to New York City and Miami.  The "bird" of the title is Dr. B. Douglas MacRannoch.  The B is for Beltanno, but no one except her father calls her that; most call her "Doctor."  Her father is James Ulrich MacRannoch, also known as The MacRannoch, the 45th chief of Clan Rannoch, widowed and in his 60s.  Unfortunately, he is "subject to nasal polyps and asthma in winter, during the Perth bull sales, and when the stock-market wavers."  On medical advice, he has leased out the family seat, Rannoch Castle, "a small but finely-preserved twelfth-century castle" in Argyll, and setted in the Bahamas.  Beltanno, his only child, gave up a promising research career in Cambridge to join him.  She is now the Medical Officer at the United Commonwealth Hospital in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas. Her father has for years carried on a blatant campaign to get his daughter suitably married off, before the family fortune and the chieftanship fall to the next heir, Mr. T.K. Rannoch, a native of Tokyo.

Returning from a brief trip escorting a patient to New York, Beltanno is waiting for her flight at Kennedy Airport when she is called to a medical emergency.  The new patient is Sir Bartholomew Edgecome, a retired ambassador now living in the Bahamas with his wife.  Though Beltanno suspects nothing more sinister than food poisoning, she takes samples before he is transported to the hospital, where he improves overnight.  She agrees to escort him home on the morning plane, and he has another attack on the flight, despite having eaten nothing unsupervised.  When Beltanno has him safely installed in her own hospital, he asks her to take a letter to Johnson Johnson, staying nearby on his yacht Dolly.  Before she does so, she runs tests on the samples she took, which show that he was poisoned with arsenic.  Taking that news with Edgecome's letter to Johnson, she is drawn into helping him discover who is trying to kill the former ambassador.  Her father, meanwhile, is continuing not just his matrimonial schemes but also planning a MacRannoch Gathering, Tattoo and Highland Event, drawing clan members from around the world, including his unwelcome heir.

It has been many years since I read this book, and I had no real memory of it, so the developments of the plot often caught me by surprise.  There are two main stories here.  The first is the mystery involving the attacks on Edgecombe.  It takes Beltanno to various islands around the Bahamas and to Miami, to nightclubs, the dog-track, and some very fraught rounds of golf.  There is a moonlit chase up a water tower, and a white-knuckled sail under pursuit through a maze of inland water channels.  Johnson is in full 007 mode here, though without Q's gadgets.  Sir Bartholomew describes him at one point as "a personalized Army assault vehicle with amphibian characteristics."

Woven through these perilous events is a second story.  Working with Johnson brings Beltanno into more than one dangerous situation, she is threatened and in one case cruelly attacked.  But it also brings her out of what some might consider a rather restricted life of work, her one recreation golf.  She has no real friends, she avoids emotional relationships and refuses to consider marriage.  She and her father are in a constant state of war as he tries to maneuver her into marriage, embarrassing her with blatant offers to eligible men.  She retaliates by refusing his financial help, supporting herself frugally on her salary, and frequently announcing that she will marry Mr. MacRannoch of Tokyo (whom her father refers to in very un-PC terms).  Johnson diagnoses it as "a hell of a family life."  Beltanno has to admit that, accept the problems and her share of the responsibility, before she can move on.  Though the mystery is solved neatly in the end - well, no, the ending of that is pretty messy, actually.  But there is resolution, while Beltanno loses something that meant a great deal to her, but equally is left with new choices, new possibilities.  I can't make up my mind what she will choose, or even what I would advise her to choose.


  1. Beltanno sounds like a great character and I love the mix of humor and sadness. You always read the most interesting and unique books!

  2. This series is completely crackers, isn't it? I love it so much - it has everything, and every emotional range. You make me want to read them all again!

  3. Anbolyn, it is quite a mix. Beltanno's story is just as compelling as the mystery! Dorothy Dunnett had such a gift for creating these complex characters.

    vicki, once I got started I wanted to read them all again too! but then that always happens with Dunnett. I think Starry Bird will be next.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!