The Portrait of Molly Dean by Katherine Kovacic

‘Lane & Co. think they have a portrait of a pretty but unknown girl by an unknown artist.’

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.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018