A Scandal in Bohemia, Gideon Haigh

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A Scandal in Bohemia
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9780143789574
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Book Synopsis

An unsolved murder takes one of Australia’s foremost writers of non-fiction into the 1930s Bohemian demi-monde, exploring the fate of a talented young woman trying to make her way in that artistic, sexualised, ‘liberated’ world.

As enigmatic in life as in death, Mollie Dean was a woman determined to transcend. Creatively ambitious and sexually precocious, at twenty-five she was a poet, aspiring novelist and muse on the peripheries of Melbourne’s bohemian salons – until one night in 1930 she was brutally slain by an unknown killer in a laneway while walking home.

Her family was implicated. Those in her circle, including her acclaimed artist lover Colin Colahan, were shamed. Her memory was anxiously suppressed. Yet the mystery of her death rendered more mysterious her life and Mollie’s story lingered, incorporated into memoir, literature, television, theatre and song, most notably in George Johnston’s classic My Brother Jack.

In A Scandal in Bohemia, Gideon Haigh explodes the true crime genre with a murder story about life as well as death. Armed with only a single photograph and echoes of Mollie’s voice, he has reassembled the precarious life of a talented woman without a room of her own – a true outsider, excluded by the very world that celebrated her in its art. In this work of restorative justice, Mollie Dean emerges as a tenacious, charismatic, independent woman for whom society had no place, and whom everybody tried to forget – but nobody could.

Book Review

Gideon Haigh must like a challenge if the story of the murder of Mollie Dean is anything to go by. There's not a lot known about Mollie - during her lifetime, or sadly about her violent and vicious death. What little is known is gleaned from small clues left behind, a single photograph, some of her published writing, newspaper reporting and extrapolation of the contradicting societies in which she mixed.

A SCANDAL IN BOHEMIA starts out concentrating on those societal aspects. Mollie Dean's life initially took the expected path of the daughter of a respected school teacher and a difficult mother, after a good education, she went into teaching, specialising, and succeeding, based on scant records, with special needs classes in particular. There are elements of her early life, however, that give some clues as to why she yearned to veer from that path. Her father died when she was young, and her mother was, by accounts of friends and family, an awful woman. Pushy, demanding and self-involved, her desperation to control Mollie (and her salary), right down, it would seem, to attempts to marry Mollie off to her own young lover, were obviously part of Mollie's longing for "a room of one's own". The echoes here with Virginia Woolf's essay are obviously relied on heavily by Haigh in drawing out a picture of a young woman, a would be writer and poet, who tries many times to remove herself from a toxic family, seeking comfort, acceptance and validation in the artistic and bohemian circle of artists and thinkers surrounding Max Meldrum and Mollie's own lover Colin Colahan. 

Attempting to outline the world that Mollie was trying to find a way in, Haigh has done considerable work in identifying the leading figures in the group, outlining their complicated relationships - friendship and sexual - drawing a picture of two very different worlds. A home life blighted by an overbearing mother, who went so far as to have Mollie followed at times (not from care or concern but control), and the free, easy, and literate life of the artistic community. It's very easy to see how a young woman of that time would be drawn to the artistic group, drawn to life as the lover of a talented, albeit somewhat insipid sort of a man. All of that stacks up against the sad and vicious murder of Mollie, and what now seems to have been the disinterested way in which the investigation was treated.

Haigh approaches these books in a manner which reminds you of the lead of an investigation team. Using genealogical sources, public records source, police records and scant snippets of information gleaned from many sources, he pulls together pictures of the time, and the people. Obviously here he's very hamstrung in being able to draw a detailed picture of Mollie Dean and the murder investigation that commenced after her death because so little remains in the records about her and it. There's plenty of conclusions to be drawn from that, and Haigh, as in his last historical true crime book Certain Admissions, leaves the reader to their own devices in that area. That lack of detail is probably going to be very frustrating for some readers, and for others, overwhelmingly instructive. 

From this account it seems that Mollie Dean was a beautiful, clever, talented young woman who was keen to make a mark and achieve something in her life. Her life was taken from her in the most brutal of manners because somebody wanted to control that. Who did that and why, readers will have to decide for themselves.

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