Book review: The Portrait of Molly Dean by Katherine Kovacic

Tuesday, November 5, 2019 Permalink

I met Melbourne author Katherine Kovacic at the BAD Crime Writers’ Festival in early September. She was speaking at some sessions and also a finalist at the Ned Kelly Awards, for her debut novel, The Portrait of Molly Dean.

I’d heard of the book but – a bit like The Killing of Louisa by Janet Lee – thought it was non-fiction. And anyone who knows anything about me knows I do not read non-fiction. (Or historical fiction, or fantasy, romance, science fiction etc…) Except on those occasions when I ‘accidentally’ do.

I discovered of course The Portrait of Molly Dean is a fictionalised account of the actual murder of teacher/writer/muse Molly Dean in Melbourne in 1930. And my interest was piqued after I heard Katherine speak about it and how she became intrigued by the unsolved crime and rather cynical accounts of the victim.

Book review: The Portrait of Molly Dean by Katherine KovacicThe Portrait of Molly Dean
by Katherine Kovacic
Series: Alex Clayton #1
Published by Bonnier Publishing Australia
on 01/03/2018
Source: Purchased
Genres: Historical Fiction, Crime Fiction
ISBN: 9781760409784
Pages: 271

In 1999, art dealer Alex Clayton stumbles across a lost portrait of Molly Dean, an artist's muse brutally slain in Melbourne in 1930.

Alex buys the painting and sets out to uncover more details, but finds there are strange inconsistencies: Molly's mother seemed unconcerned by her daughter's violent death, the main suspect was never brought to trial despite compelling evidence, and vital records are missing.

Alex enlists the help of her close friend, art conservator John Porter, and together they sift through the clues and deceptions that swirl around the last days of Molly Dean.

I should mention I do (in fact) read historical fiction that unfolds in dual timelines (novels by Kate Morton, Natasha Lester etc come to mind), which is the case here, as this tale of Molly Dean and her murder unfolds in two timeframes – a short period of time in 1930 and now – both unravelling amidst the fascinating backdrop of Australia’s artworld.

I know nothing about art. Katherine on the other hand has a PhD in art history. References to artists, their work and genres or schools of art are easily dropped into the narrative. Indeed, some sections are dense with incredible detail about art, artists, art restoration and the industry. But there’s no sense of smug elitism; and though I knew of none of the references my understanding of the book and its setting didn’t suffer. Similarly I wasn’t made to feel ignorant because of that lack of context.

As it happens Alex is a delightful narrator and amazingly pragmatic about her life and her work. So… not at all precious or arrogant.

I’m excited that this is to be the first in a series. It’s not the gun-toting, police chase kind of murder mystery that has you on the edge of your seat. There’s more of a sense of intrigue rather than evil and it’s built steadily through Alex who becomes obsessed by the unsolved murder of Molly Dean.

I was bewitched by Katherine’s writing and – as I’ve met her – I realise it’s very much like her. Eloquent and (seemingly) effortlessly easy, with some dry humour thrown in. Interestingly when I think about authors I’ve met I find their own voice or personality is often reflected in their writing. Also in their characters occasionally, but more so in the way their words are shaped on the page. I can’t remember meeting anyone whose writing I liked but didn’t find entertaining / engaging in person or vice versa.

As an art lover I guess it’s not surprising that the settings of this book are incredibly detailed. I’m not very visual so sometimes skim this, but the manner in which she (well, Alex) easily and casually drops info in made my head spin. In a good way. Again she does it with such easy expertise – whether it’s furniture or the streets of Melbourne or music – it felt so natural and so learned.

The banister is one of the most fantastic things I’ve ever seen and, now I”m alone, I take my time to look at it properly and run my hand across its surface as I slowly ascend. The newel post at the lowest stair is shaped like the head of a fantastical dragon, mouth agape, each tooth and scale carved to perfection from richly hued mahogany. Some detail on the top of his skull has been lost under generations of caressing hands, but that only enhances the patina. Intricate newel posts are not uncommon , but what makes this special is the fact that it’s not just about the post. Instead the handrail extending out from the dragon’s head forms his body. The entire rail is carved with scales and it undulates like a writhing serpent, while at the very top, a pointed tail lashes the air. It’s glorious, Gothic and probably far older than the house it currently inhabits. p 142

Just beautiful and it doesn’t matter that I don’t know what newel is or should google patina. It’s balanced, because in the next paragraph Alex realises she’s hungry and ponders the fact that all she’s eaten that day has been a Mars Bar and some TicTacs.

On a couple of occasions (plot-wise) I got a tad lost as something was casually referenced – as if already mentioned. I flipped back a few times to see if I’d missed their/its introduction earlier (other dead women, key suspects etc) and I’m not sure if I did miss something or things moved things about during the editing process.

But they were minor (and I’m anally logical/methodical) and it didn’t impact on my enjoyment of this novel at all.

I’m looking forward to meeting Alex again as Katherine has cleverly held quite a bit back here. I was fascinated by her work, loved that she inhabited her character (including the way she dresses) but keen to learn more about her relationship with her mother and  her friend John and others in the art industry. And… I may have missed something, but realised later I had no idea how old she is / was. And I kinda liked that.

The Portrait of Molly Dean by Katherine Kovacic was published in Australia by Echo Publishing (Bonnier) and is now available.


Comments are closed.