Painting in the Shadows by Katherine Kovacic

‘Great art can make even the most important person seem insignificant – and I’m not important by any means.’

Art dealer Alex Clayton is both thrilled and nervous to be previewing the Melbourne International Museum of Art (MIMA)’s latest exhibition: Masterpieces of Victorian Britain.  Alex is thrilled because of the art, nervous because she has some unpleasant memories from the time she spent working there.  She and her friend, conservator John Porter, meet and make their way into MIMA.  They are present when, as a large painting is being unpacked, one of the packers collapses and damages the reportedly cursed painting.  The packer is taken to hospital.

Meredith Buchanan, a senior conservator, is to repair the work.  But when she dies, less than twenty-four hours later in an apparent suicide, John Porter is asked to supervise the repairs.  Was Meredith also a victim of the reputed curse?

The conservation studio is now a crime scene, but there is something strange about the scene.  There is a splash of paint: a vivid crimson which is not a colour on the painting to be restored.  And then Alex discovers a torn-up photograph.  The police dismiss the photograph as irrelevant, but something is not right, and Alex and John are determined to investigate.  Their amateur investigations lead them into some tight spots while their knowledge of art leads them to some worrying conclusions.  Alex is offered a job at MIMA, which complicates matters. 

This novel is the second in Ms Kovacic’s Alex Clayton Art Mystery series.  We were introduced to the characters of Alex and John in ‘The Portrait of Molly Dean’, and they are further developed here.  They are good friends, have been for years, even though John’s jealous wife does her best to keep them apart.

Ms Kovacic works some interesting technical detail (about the behind the scenes work of art museums and the restoration of damaged paintings) into the story.  But the real focus is on the death of Meredith.  If she did not commit suicide, who killed her and why?  And what is the significance of the crimson paint?   

The various pieces come together in a satisfying conclusion.

I enjoyed this novel.  The story and the setting held my attention, as did the working relationship and history between Alex and John.  I especially liked Alex’s Irish wolfhound Hogarth. 

I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series shortly.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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