The Portrait of Molly Dean: a real-life murder, woven into a mystery

The Portrait of Molly Dean book review

What is this about?: Alex Clayton, an art dealer, finds a portrait of a real woman from Melbourne in the 1930s who was murdered. Soon, she becomes obsessed with Molly, and finding out who murdered her, and then she finds people after her and the portrait.

What else is this about?: Not much else to be honest.


An unsolved murder comes to light after almost seventy years…

In 1999, art dealer Alex Clayton stumbles across a lost portrait of Molly Dean, an artist’s muse brutally slain in Melbourne in 1930. Alex buys the painting and sets out to uncover more details, but finds there are strange inconsistencies: Molly’s mother seemed unconcerned by her daughter’s violent death, the main suspect was never brought to trial despite compelling evidence, and vital records are missing. Alex enlists the help of her close friend, art conservator John Porter, and together they sift through the clues and deceptions that swirl around the last days of Molly Dean

Stars: 3

The Portrait of Molly Dean was a bit of a mixed bag.

It begins with Alex and our introduction to the art world, where we follow Alex to auctions and her train of thought as she contemplates how to appear before other bidders in order to ensure she can the painting she wants – throw in a couple of bids on something else, so as not to appear too eager, and to hold back until the last minute on the things she really wants. She knows the room, knows the other bidders and how they bid and what they bid for usually. It’s a complex game with rules that actually kind of reminded me of a house auction.

From there, and buying Molly’s portrait, we follow Alex has she begins to investigate Molly’s murder, and the book splits into two timelines – Alex’s investigation, and Molly herself in the 1930s.

Molly is a woman out of time – restricted by the society in which she lives, and the expectations of her. She longs to be a writer, to travel in circles that understand art and her desire to write, and leave behind the security of her teaching job. Her mother of course, believes none of what she does and is to be quite blunt, awful. But Molly continues to follow her dream, and pursue writing by making her first freelance article about a prominent Melbourne man.

Meanwhile, Alex’s part of the story begins to stumble, almost as if the author was treading water to be able to get Molly to where she needed to be in her part of the story. A badly executed retelling of Molly’s murder scene is very much an info dump, by a daughter retelling this to Alex as if she was the one examining the scene, and not telling Alex about what her father found. That continues until Alex finds the information about Molly’s first and last profile, and realises the truth of who murdered her.

This is an ambitious story, with enough about the art world that made me curious enough to stick with until the end.


  • Jen Mullen says:

    I like the premise, and since you liked it enough (or were curious enough) to stay with it despite the information dump, I will add this one to my list. Sometimes I stay with a book just to find out the what happens, and I would want to discover what really happened to Molly.

    • Verushka says:

      I admired the author for creating this story, and suspects out of a real-life murder that hasn’t been solved. She definitely did her research and the art details in particular were very cool to read.

  • I like the sound of this with the art world, mystery and dual timelines. Sounds like it has some issues but might still be worth picking up.

    • Verushka says:

      Yeah, it had enough going for it that I stuck with it — the art world and a real life murder isn’t a mix I thought I’d ever read

  • Lily says:

    this book has been getting some really awesome reviews lately, so it’s awesome to see someone point out the parts that were a bit sloppy

  • I really like stories set in the “high art world” with all the glamour and inevitable shadiness that entails, but I think the info-dumping and uneven pacing would annoy me. Dual timelines are so difficult to carry off!

    • Verushka says:

      I was curious enough to see who the author made into the killer because she’d done so much research and clearly knew her stuff with respect tot eh art world, for instance, Hit and miss, I guess.

  • Angela says:

    This sounds so interesting – I love a dual timeline story – I’m sorry this didn’t totally work out for you!

  • Daniela Ark says:

    Yes! a female character out of time that continues to follow her dream! AND A WRITER! I’m in love with Molly already 🙂

  • Kelly says:

    I’ve always been morbidly fascinated by the story of Molly Dean and her murder. Her story would have made a great documentary but I don’t think there’s all that much known about her. I love Melbourne true crime stories, The Underbelly series, the Carlton Crew. That cover is absolutely gorgeous! Have just added it to my Goodreads even though the investigation sounds as though it’s fascicle. Would have been incredible had the narrative been told of Molly’s life instead, leading up to her murder. Great review Verushka darling <3 <3

    • Verushka says:

      TY! And, oh wow, you know of the Molly Dean murder? Just how famous is it? I mean I expected it was well known I guess to make it into a book after all. I didn’t know you were such a lover of true crime, Kelly! I feel like there’s a whole — pardon the pun — underbelly of australian crime that might need to be explored more (or I wish it would be)

  • Not sure if this would be a great book for me. I love the idea of Molly’s story, but Alex’s amateur detective narrative might not hold my interest

  • This sounds like a good book. A female character trying to figure out a past murder. YES! I think I would really like this.

  • The art world and the dual timeline intrigue me. I don’t know that I’d rush out and pick this one up but it sounds like something I could see myself reading if I was in the mood for a “detective”story. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it!

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