Living in an area that's got more than it's fair share of talented artists, there's something strangely appealing about crime fiction set in the art world. (I'm not implying anything about the people that live here, nor their likelihood of becoming victims and/or perpetrators). But it's a little mined area of interest, and in Katherine Kovacic's novel, THE PORTRAIT OF MOLLY DEAN, it's gold.
Molly (Mollie) Dean was a real person, teacher, writer, poet, artist's model and lover of Meldrumite painter and Melbourne art world identity Colin Colahan. (For more on her see A SCANDAL IN BOHEMIA). Combining her true life story, of which little is known, with a current and fictional past is a brave undertaking, and it's very well envisionaged here. Starting out when art dealer, and free spirit herself, Alex Cayton stumbles across a lost portrait believed to be of Molly Dean, which she subsequently buys, and then sets out to uncover more details about the origins of the painting and Molly herself. Interspersing that with chapters from Molly's perspective, Kovacic builds a possible explanation of Molly's death that ties in with the details that Alex discovers in the current day. Potentially slightly messy, it's seamlessly and rather elegantly done.
Part of what makes it all work is the dual echoes - the characters of Alex and Molly have some believable synergy to them - both individuals, both strong, both determined. The current day investigation uncovers clues and insights into Molly's murder, as Molly herself moves inexorably to her fate. Both these women are engaging, both of them quirky, both of them daft and clever all at the same time.
This plot device just flat out works. After reading Gideon Haigh's true account of Mollie Dean's life and death (the aforementioned A SCANDAL IN BOHEMIA), there is much that remains unknown about Mollie and her murder to this day. His book almost invites the reader to draw their own conclusions from a scant but compelling set of clues, and Kovacic seems to be doing just that. Creating an immensely readable, thoroughly entertaining novel along the way.