Books like THE PORTRAIT OF MOLLY DEAN ticks many of the things I love to read in fiction. There’s a mystery to solve, it takes place in the art world, it’s based on a true story - a crime that remains unsolved - and there’s a sympathetic protagonist.
What I love about books like this is our lead character, Alex Clayton, is passionate about her subject and takes the effort to research and dig deeper into a story that many others in her field would have ignored.
As an art dealer, we get to see Alex juggling her professional and ethical responsibilities; from buying and selling artworks (be it a gallery or a back alley) to researching using all manner of sources and playing mind games with other dealers in the hopes of getting her hands on artworks before other dealers and at a reasonable price. A girl’s got to make a living, you know!
The book moves between 1999 when Alex is investigating Molly’s murder and 1930 when we get to see life through Molly Dean’s eyes. I enjoyed taking the trip back in time, and being familiar with Melbourne, I felt I was on this journey with both Alex and Molly.
Overall a highly enjoyable featuring a great central character (Alex) along with her wonderful companion, Hogarth, a Great Dane dog and her art restorer friend, John.
As I write this, book two in Alex Clayton Art Mystery series has been released and I am on my library’s waiting list to pick it up.
An unsolved murder is at the centre of this accomplished debut novel by Katherine Kovacic. In the early hours of 21 November 1930, Mary (Molly) Winifred Dean was brutally murdered in a laneway in Elwood, Melbourne. Molly was a young teacher and an aspiring author.
While the novel re-imagines events leading up to Molly’s murder, Ms Kovacic starts her novel by working back from the discovery of a painting in 1999. Alex Cole is an art dealer who believes she has found a painting of Molly Dean by her lover, artist Colin Colahan. Alex buys the painting, knowing that it will be worth considerably more once she can have it restored and establish its provenance. Alex’s path leads her to the daughter of the detective who investigated Molly’s murder in the 1930s.
The story unfolds over two timeframes: Molly’s in 1930, and Alex’s in 1999. In Molly’s world, we are reminded of the restrictions that applied to most women trying to make their own way in the world. We also get a glimpse of the bohemian lifestyle of some in the art world at the time. In Alex’s world, we see a different perspective of the art world almost seventy years later: restorations, valuations, establishing provenance. But Alex wants to find out more about the painting, about what happened to Molly. And there are certainly many inconsistencies and some curious aspects to the investigation undertaken in the 1930s. And in the present? Someone else is also after the painting of Molly.
At the end of the novel, Ms Kovacic provides a set of author’s notes distinguishing fact from fiction. I was grateful for those notes (and glad I read them at the end of the novel). Why at the end? Because I didn’t need to differentiate fact from fiction until the end. In my reading, most of Ms Kovacic’s novel was entirely plausible and I enjoyed reading it. Recommended.
Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Bonnier Publishing Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.
4.5★s “The painting is filthy and the varnish has discoloured to a nasty yellow, which is probably part of the reason Lane & Co. has failed to recognise the artist. But I can see the jewel tones beneath the dirt, and as I gaze at the lovely young woman with her short dark bob and mischievous brown eyes, I know I am staring into the face of Molly Dean.”
The Portrait of Molly Dean is the first novel by Australian veterinarian, art historian and author, Katherine Kovacic. When art dealer Alex Clayton manages to buy, at the bargain price of $3000, a heretofore unknown portrait of Molly Dean by Colin Colahan, her plan is to clean it up, find it some provenance, add some interest with a backstory, then move it on for a sizeable profit.
Provenance proves impossible, but the backstory will do: Molly Dean was murdered is a Melbourne back lane in November 1930. But as she checks the facts and does some research, Alex becomes intrigued by the circumstances of Molly’s death. Missing documents are a puzzle. And it seems someone rather badly wants to have the portrait. Or do they just want Alex not to have it? What secrets might it hold?
The novel is split into two time periods, with the 1999 first-person narrative giving Alex’s point of view, while the 1930 third-person is from Molly’s perspective. Basing her tale on real-life events, Kovacic sticks fairly closely to the known facts about Molly Dean’s death, but she fills out the main historical characters, giving them life. She gives the reader a plausible version of the events preceding Molly’s death, and throws her present-day characters into a fascinating adventure.
Kovacic’s knowledge of art history and conservation is apparent in every chapter: she manages to subtly include in the story a wealth of art-related information without ever boring the reader. Her characters are well rendered: Molly, determined to better her situation; Alex, intrigued by the unsolved murder; John, providing support and a sounding board for Alex. The banter between the latter two is delightful. These two, and Hogarth, are characters of whom readers would enjoy seeing more. An impressive debut. With thanks to Echo Publishing for this copy to read and review.