A Scandal in Bohemia: The Life and Death of Mollie Dean
Hamish Hamilton, $32.99
The Portrait of Molly Dean
Gideon Haigh is one of our masters of non-fiction, whether he's writing about cricket or business or indeed anything. Recently this has been true crime with the publication in 2015 of Certain Admissions, a riveting study of a 1950 murder for which a radio announcer, John Bryan Kerr, was found guilty and a story told compelling in its loops and intricacies, its trial denouements and aftermaths.
Now he has taken a murder from 1930, of a young artistically inclined woman, Mollie Dean, who was stabbed in a laneway in that bit of Elwood where all the streets have writers' names.
Dean is by way of being something of a cause to Haigh who is exercised by the way she has been marginalised and misrepresented in the history of the case and he is keen to bring us up to date with 21st-century revisitings of her. These include Katherine Kovacic's vividly imagined whodunnit, The Portrait of Molly Dean, which inhabits the past it proceeds to thrillerise with a sureness of touch that may have something to do with the author's fine arts background. (Haigh calls her Mollie; Kavacic perfers Molly.)
Haigh, in fact, sometimes sounds a bit uncharacteristically cluttered and not quite footsure in the face of the artistic milieu he feels obliged to delineate. Colin Colahan, the painter who had a relationship with Molly Dean; Max Meldrum, that hugely influential teacher; Clarice Beckett, best of the bunch, and Justus Jorgensen, of subsequent Montsalvat fame. Haigh is, as always, brilliantly sweeping but you feel that he's telling us what he's set himself to learn rather than speaking out of a deep inwardness with what he knows.
None of which is to deny the intelligence of every page Haigh writes. Which other archaeologist of sordid crime would quote Gide saying that fiction is the history that might have happened whereas history is fiction that has.
The improbability of the Molly Dean story as Haigh rehearses it is written all over this weird, obsessive sketchy book. Dean was a young woman who wrote a bit, who became involved with Colahan and was persecuted by her mother who denounced her as a gadabout slut, assaulted her and abused her and seems herself to have been involved with the man who was charged with Molly's murder.
Haigh creates this domestic horror story with great vividness just as he evokes (like an instantiation of the Walter Benjamin adage that the history of civilisation is always at the same time the history of barbarism) details both of the fact that the victim was genitally mutilated and that a man who had had carnal knowledge with a 14-year-old girl had been sentenced to be flogged twice in prison.
Haigh's starting point is more the way in which Dean's murder was reshaped and distorted by the artistic figures who were shadowed by it or felt they had been. He makes much of the displacements and distortions of the murder in George Johnston's account in My Brother Jack.
In particular, and through all the long history of recollection and misremembering, Haigh is appalled at the way Colahan seems to have reconceived the whole murder saga in terms of how he was suspected and of the enormous length of time it took for a telephone operator to corroborate his alibi, which was that he had spoken to the victim on the phone twice on the night she died.
This is distanced history and it rides the contradictions of the fact that Dean became famous (and notorious) as a victim while also having an intimacy with an artistic milieu that was intensely aware of her but on which she had not made a notable impact as a creative figure.
This leaves Haigh with a – transfigured – fascination with Molly Dean as the Body in the Laneway and he does handstands to try to establish her individuality and the way she was marginalised by the artists who knew her. But the fundamental fact is that it's her murder that has given her a fortuitous immortality.
He is terrific at putting things in context – that Dean and Colahan went to see Pygmalion, say – but he is at his best (and Molly at her most poignant) in the portrait of the young schoolteacher trying to get by in the vicinity of a vengeful mother.
What he establishes quite powerfully is the scandal sheet nastiness of the past – the potential for a fugitive feminine independence in the '20s and '30s, the coming down of the shutters in the '50s – but he struggles to get the face of Molly Dean in focus.
A bit surprisingly, Kovacic's debut thriller, The Portrait of Molly Dean, does this quite triumphantly. Or rather: she writes about as good a racketing yarn as you could out of this rather dispiriting and horrible material with great looming and enigmatic gaps in our knowledge of it.
She plays as fair with the material as she could (slightly to the detriment of the ins and outs and potential for surprise in her plot). She invents one sympathetic character, a devoted daughter of the investigating cop, and one dark lord of influence and iniquity, but otherwise this is the Molly Dean story that Haigh has detailed in all its wild improbability and incoherence.
The skills of a natural-born trashmeister are on show here to scintillating effect. Alex Clayton, Kovacic's heroine, is a young tough expert art dealer who is convincingly inward with her art and talks about it effortlessly. She comes with a devoted wolfhound called Hogarth and a likeable male sidekick who restores paintings.
The central device is just that: Colahan's portrait turns up, anonymously, at auction, and Alex snaffles it for a song. She becomes obsessed by the details of the unsolved murder and is assaulted by some mystery person who wants to get hold of the picture.
Part of the drama of this rather highbrow thriller is that it's also one of those books where we jump from the present (1999, long enough ago for survivors of 1930 to be alive, just) to 1930 itself and to the aspirations and adventures of Molly Dean and the dark deeds she gets a hint of before she is knocked off.
Kovacic has quite upper level skills as a teller of tales that relax the mind and provide a simulacrum of realistic characters who don't insult the imaginative intelligence. In the light of Haigh's amassed tale of sordor and sorrow she's also pretty nifty in the face of gobbets of indigestible uncorroborated evidence.
She has the advantage, of course, that this is a whodunnit with all the crispness and lightness and devil-may-care obligation to do nothing but entertain that implies. And Kovacic is extremely good at the appropriate texture and concomitant banter for a budding detective story writer of the first order.
Her only difficulty is the way history keeps holding her back and cramping her style. The Molly Dean stuff is well done and the documentary stuff well integrated but what we need is the art girl, the hound, and the restorer, let loose in a plot with more reversals and surprises.
This is very classily executed trash with exactly the right level of whimsy and intrigue and quietly exhibitionist sophistication. It really does bring to mind early Peter Temple and Shane Maloney. If Katherine Kovacic sets her trio baying and bragging in the vicinity of a real puzzle, the made-up kind, she should sell by the truckload.
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