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
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.