Tag Archives: crime

Review: The Portrait of Molly Dean by Katherine Kovacic

Real life is often an inspiration for fiction. Some real events resonate so strongly they inspire a lot of different ways to filter and explore the event, its social context and its repercussions.

The 1930 Melbourne murder of schoolteacher and aspiring writer, Mary “Molly” Dean, is one such event. It’s referenced in George Johnston’s My Brother Jack, in the memoir of Betty Roland, who knew Dean, and in the 2002 play Solitude in Blue.

Poignancy and a mysterious fascination were lent to Dean’s grisly death by the fact that it remains unsolved, and that she was in a relationship with local artist, Colin Calahan, and had been the subject of two of his paintings.

I knew none of this when Echo Publishing sent me a copy of Katherine Kovacic’s The Portrait of Molly Dean, except for the fact it was based on a true event. I resisted any research in favour of just taking in the story as presented.

Kovacic’s debut novel is a marvellous blend of history and invention and uses the notions of art restoration as an effective narrative device to reveal her invented version of the truth.

It begins in 1999 when art dealer, Alex Clayton, buys the Colahan portrait of Molly Dean at an auction. Clayton specialises in finding artworks that have been obscured or underappreciated, buying them cheap, restoring them and proving their provenance, and re-selling at a considerable profit.

Her initial aim to research a little about Molly Dean’s death to make the picture more attractive to buyers (everyone loves a good murder mystery) becomes almost a compulsion. Shocked to learn the trial for the only suspect was abandoned on the day it was due to begin, she starts to investigate the 70 year old mystery herself.

While her friend John Porter begins to slowly clean the portrait and bring long-lost Molly back into the light, an unknown person is trying to obtain the painting from her.

Clayton’s investigation, told in the present tense, is interleaved with the story set in the 1930s, of Molly’s constrained life at home with her mother, her ambitions to become a journalist and novelist, and the night of her murder.

This 1930s story is, like the portrait in 1999, is slowly revealed, with care and attention to detail.  As Alex explores the case and potential killers, the details of Molly’s life are slowly revealed. It’s an elegant little leapfrog progress, where each woman’s narrative reveals just enough to fuel the next act.

Modern Alex’s independence, backed by John and her dog Hogarth, is a complement to and a contrast with doomed Molly’s determination to break free from her awful mother’s house and assert her own independence.

The two women are very different but they have a kinship, and it’s easy to get emotionally connected to them both. While there’s nothing to be done about Molly’s fate, Kovacic cleverly entangles the reader into concern for Alex, whose investigations are of clear concern to someone from the past.

Kovacic’s style is clean and well-paced, and she manages to give the 1930s and the 1990s each a different feel without being jarring or sacrificing clarity or pace. There’s texture and pathos in this story, as well as courage and surprises.

Kovacic is careful to point out in the afterword of The Portrait of Molly Dean that her resolution to the mystery is her own invention. But it’s a good one, in a well-told story, and a very satisfying read.

Buy The Portrait of Molly Dean

Read more about Molly Dean

Five Questions for Alan Baxter

Today, Alan Baxter answers five questions about his new book:

Alan Baxter

1. What’s the name of your latest book – and how did you choose the title?

The new novel is called Hidden City. Generally, I hate choosing titles. Every once in a while, a title will drop into place, but that’s very rare. Usually I agonise over them for ages. Thankfully, this was one of those rare occasions when the title was there right from the start and it stuck.

2. If you could choose anyone from any time period, who would you cast as the leads in your latest book?

I don’t like to say. People often ask me that question about books, but how I see a character may not be anything like how a reader sees them, and I don’t want to tread on that. There’s some description there in the book, of course, but beyond that I want the reader to build their own mental cast and however they look, that’s fine with me.

3. What five words best describe your story?

Urban fantasy horror noir weird.

4. Who’s your favourite fictional team?

Batman and the Joker. I love everything about both characters and how they fuel each other, and how their pasts created them and continue to inform them. I think they’re the two greatest fictional characters ever invented. (Of course, I mean the 80s/90s DC Comics versions, not the Adam West version [though I do love that show] or the modern movies.)

5. What song reflects a theme, character or scene in your book?

Well, this is a dangerous question to ask someone with tastes like mine. There’s a band called Strapping Young Lad, who have disbanded now, but they produced some of the heaviest shit ever and I love them. The lead singer/guitarist, Devin Townsend, is a musical genius, and he still makes amazing music with The Devin Townsend Project. Check them out!

But to answer your question about this particular book, I’m going to say “All Hail The New Flesh” from the Strapping Young Lad album, City. Brace yourselves.

About Hidden City

When the city is sick, everyone suffers.

Steven Hines listened to the city and the city spoke. Cleveport told him she was sick. With his unnatural connection to her, that meant Hines was sick too. But when his friend, Detective Abby Jones, comes to him for help investigating a series of deaths with no discernible cause, Hines can’t say no. Then strange fungal growths begin to appear in the streets, affecting anyone who gets too close, turning them into violent lunatics.

As the mayhem escalates and officials start to seal Cleveport off from the rest of the world, Hines knows the trouble has only just begun.

About Alan Baxter

Alan Baxter is a British-Australian author who writes supernatural thrillers and urban horror, rides a motorcycle and loves his dogs. He also teaches Kung Fu. He lives among dairy paddocks on the beautiful south coast of NSW, Australia, with his wife, son, dogs and cat. He’s the multi-award-winning author of several novels and over seventy short stories and novellas. So far.

Read extracts from his novels, a novella and short stories at his website, on Twitter and Facebook, and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.

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