Book Review: Delve into a 1930s murder with Katherine Kovacic’s The Portrait of Molly Dean

Molly Dean, artist’s muse and aspiring journalist, was brutally murdered in Melbourne in 1930. Despite compelling evidence her killer was never officially found. Seventy years later, art dealer Alex Clayton discovers what she believes to be a portrait of Molly and delves headfirst into the mystery. Despite cover-ups, missing records, and suspects long since deceased, Alex edges ever closer to the truth. But someone wants this secret to stay hidden, and they’ve got their eye on both Alex and the portrait.

Author Katherine Kovacic has put together a wonderful mystery, based on the real-life murder of Molly Dean. Drawing on historical research, made all the more difficult by official records going missing (as referenced in the novel), The Portrait of Molly Dean features a dual storyline, following both Molly in the days leading up to her death, and Alex in her search for the truth. Alex’s compelling journey shifts from a casual hunt for provenance to a desire for justice, aided by conservator and conspiracy theorist John, and her faithful wolfhound, Hogarth. And importantly, Kovacic’s blend of historical fiction and exciting fiction results in an ending that offers both measured conjecture and closure.

The Portrait of Molly Dean does lack a certain richness, one that I expected given the 1920’s and 1930’s aspect of the story, and the focus on art. It was a little disappointing really then, that after a strong start filled with lush explorations of art works, the author moves almost too quickly into solving the mystery, with a denouement that feels deserving of a few more pages and a little more detail.

That being said, I could quite happily read more art world adventures featuring Alex, conservator John, and faithful wolfhound Hogarth. Kovacic has created a wonderful rapport between Alex and John, one that stays refreshingly just out of range of romance – only just – and their conversations are engaging, funny, and a blast to read.

Reading a little colder than anticipated, The Portrait of Molly Dean is nonetheless an engaging murder mystery and a tantalising glimpse of a less than glamourous side to the world of art.

The Portrait of Molly Dean is available now though Echo Publishing.


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Jodie Sloan

Living, writing, and reading in Brisbane/Meanjin. Likes spooky books, strong cocktails, and pro-wrestling.