Painting in the Shadows by Katherine Kovacic is the second in her Alex Clayton Art series. I met Katherine at the BAD Sydney Crime Writers’ Festival in September 2019 and she’d been nominated for a prestigious Ned Kelly Award for the first in that series, The Portrait of Molly Dean.
I bought that book soon after and very much enjoyed it. The Shifting Landscape was released in early 2020 and I assumed it was the sequel, forgetting about the time lag involved in award nominations. It wasn’t until I started that book I realised it was the third in the series and I’d missed one in between. That’s now been rectified and I’m glad I’ve read Painting in the Shadows as it’s probably my favourite in the series to date.Painting in the Shadows
by Katherine Kovacic
Published by Echo Publishing
Genres: Crime Fiction
Art dealer Alex Clayton and conservator John Porter are thrilled to be previewing the Melbourne International Museum of Art’s (MIMA) newest exhibition, until they witness a museum worker collapse and badly damage a reportedly cursed painting.
Belief in the curse is strengthened when MIMA’s senior conservator Meredith Buchanan dies less than twenty-four hours later while repairing the work. But Alex and John are convinced there is a decidedly human element at work in the museum.
The evidence sets them on the trail of a mysterious painting that could hold a key to Meredith’s death, and the stakes are raised higher when Alex is offered her dream job at MIMA. Damaging the museum’s reputation will jeopardise her professional future.
The friends soon realise they are facing an adversary far more ruthless than they had anticipated, and there is much more at risk than Alex’s career.
I really like Alex Clayton. Having met Kovacic I can very much appreciate how much her writing reflects her own personality. As a narrator Alex (and Kovacic) offers dry humour and wit. Her novels are cleverly written, featuring droll dialogue and intelligent prose. I find the writing quite addictive. I mean, I’d certainly want to be friends with Alex, though I’d flounder in all of the art world talk as I’m incredibly heathen-like in that respect.
Again Kovacic’s knowledge and research of artists, art history, restoration methodology and curation is astounding. I must confess to skimming over some of the detail as many of the names of artists and their work mean little to me; though it is a reminder of life outside of my bubble. It can feel a little densely populated with that information at times but there’s no sense that Kovacic is sharing it to ‘discombobulate’ readers, rather it reflects Alex’s (and John’s) extensive knowledge about their passion.
Of course, at the heart of this is the arrival of the potentially-cursed painting. After Meredith’s death, John is asked to oversee repairs and he drags Alex along with him. They soon discover the recent death may not be what it seems and it appears the victim may have stumbled across some forgeries taking place at the gallery.
I realised I’d missed a book in the series when – in The Shifting Landscape – Alex reflects on events that took place between her and John here. They’re long-term besties but he’s in an unhappy marriage and his wife detests Alex. There’s a frisson of attraction between the pair. Intellectually, their sparring is akin to flirting. Or perhaps foreplay. They seem ridiculously well-suited but perhaps if together (in that way) it would not work.
Alex’s wolfhound Hogarth again makes an appearance and I love the fact Kovacic writes him as (if) another character in her novels.
The only thing I’d probably change is that there’s quite a few references to Alex’s aversion to this particular gallery (the fictional MIMA) and we learn she interned there over a decade earlier. It’s only late in the book we’re privy to what happened. I’m not sure it was necessary to hold that information back. It could possibly have been included earlier or delivered in a prologue or similar, which would give us more context for Alex’s discomfort.
I’d kinda guessed whodunnit here. Mainly because there aren’t a lot of other characters introduced to the extent that we’d be surprised by their involvement. The mystery is intriguing but in some ways I’m more drawn to the characters, the clever writing and witty dialogue as well as Kovacic’s attention to detail – in everything from Alex’s clothes to settings to the art on offer.
One day…. when I have time, I want to go back in time and read these in order. Each however, can be easily read as a standalone.
Painting in the Shadows by Katherine Kovacic was published in Australia by Echo Publishing and is now available.