#aww2019 · 2019 Reviews · Art · Australian · crime · mystery

Book Review: The Portrait of Molly Dean by Katherine Kovacic

Title: The Portrait of Molly Deanportrait of molly dean small

Author: Katherine Kovacic

Published: March 1st 2018

Publisher: Bonnier Echo – Allen & Unwin

Pages: 288

Genres: Fiction, Crime, Mystery, Art

RRP: $24.99

Rating: 4 stars

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 painting is filthy and the varnish has discoloured to a nasty yellow, which is probably part of the reason Lane & Co. has failed to recognise the artist. But I can see the jewel tones beneath the dirt, and as I gaze at the lovely young woman with her short dark bob and mischievous brown eyes, I know I am staring into the face of Molly Dean’.

This is our introduction to the infamous Molly Dean, seen through the eyes of Alex Clayton, an art dealer in the year 1999. The Portrait of Molly Dean is a multi time frame re-imagining of the tragic true story of Mary (Molly) Winifred Dean. For Molly met her death in November, in the year 1930, in a dark laneway in Melbourne. Molly was brutally attacked and left for dead. Her attacker was never brought to justice. In this debut novel by Australian author Katherine Kovacic, Molly’s life and times are brought to the forefront, alongside art dealer Alex’s relentless search for the truth behind Molly’s murder.

Decades after the murder of Molly Dean took place, it is placed in the spotlight again thanks to the investigation work of art dealer Alex Clayton. When Alex comes into contact with a lost portrait of Molly Dean, she is immediately sent on intense search for the truth to discover more about the mysterious Molly Dean. It is an investigation that turns up lots of pathways and hidden truths. These include important missing documents and suspects that were never officially charged. Bouncing back and forth to Molly’s last days in 1930, through to the work of Alex in 1999, with the help to two allies, Molly’s incredible but ultimately sad story is unveiled. The final results are surprising.

Melbourne, the art world, a murder mystery, a deliberate concealment of facts and a historical crime marks the first novel by Katherine Kovacic. For a first time novelist, the subject matter is both ambitious and intriguing. The use of a dual time narrative is utilised to full force, heightening Alex’s current day investigations and reinforcing the tragic final moments of Molly Dean’s life in the past. Kovacic succeeds in balancing her novel’s past and present day timelines well. The Portrait of Molly Dean flowed to perfection and the rolling pace of the book ensured that I remained faithful to this book until the very end.  I just had to know what happened to Molly Dean, and who was responsible for her untimely death!

I have a weakness for art world novels and this one was no exception. The Australian art world is a fascinating sphere and I enjoyed Kovacic’s portrayal of the Bohemian set of Melbourne in decades past. Kovacic is mindful of her time period and setting of her past narrative. Kovacic has produced a plausible piece of piece of writing that had me speculating a great deal about Molly Dean and her life. After reading The Portrait of Molly Dean I realised just how much the Australian based art world is a source of great interest and an area that I want to do some further reading on. I particularly liked the employ of various key art world figures that populated the Melbourne art set and Molly Dean’s world.

Molly’s story is a sad one, and through the compelling past narrative we come to know her frustrations with her life as woman in the 1930s. We learn about her unsatisfying first career as a teacher and her aspirations to be officially recognised as a writer in the literary world. Molly also struggles to gain the upper hand over her cruel mother and throughout the book she struggles to avoid entering in a marriage with her mother’s dubious choice of suitor. We learn of Molly’s love and her work sitting for painter Colin Colahan. Molly comes across as figure that we feel immense sympathy for. There is just so much sadness and unfulfilled potential that surrounds Molly Dean’s short life.

In the 1999 based narrative, we have Alex Clayton, the art dealer, driving the events of the novel forward to the pivotal revelation at the end. I enjoyed getting to know Alex. Alex is genuine, clever and her determination to get the bottom of truth surrounding Molly was admirable. I appreciated her interactions with John Porter, a friend and art conservator. These two were a great team. Alex’s dog is delightful and adds something extra to the 1999 storyline. What appealed to me most about this storyline was the dogged determination of Alex to honour Molly in her own way. It made this book a special one indeed.

A book that is based on the real life and unsolved murder case of a promising young Australia woman in bound to draw curiosity. I really appreciated Katherine Kovacic’s treatment of this case and her depiction of Molly Dean. The ending was completely fitting and made me feel a great sense of ease for the heart I had invested in this novel. The Portrait of Molly Dean is a terrific novel that would do well with readers of art history, true crime enthusiasts and historical fiction lovers.

The Portrait of Molly Dean by Katherine Kovacic was published on 1st March 2018 by Bonnier Echo – Allen & Unwin. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.

To learn more about the author of The Portrait of Molly Dean, Katherine Kovacic, visit here. 

*I wish to thank Allen & Unwin for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.

The Portrait of Molly Dean is book #5 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge 


6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Portrait of Molly Dean by Katherine Kovacic

    1. I loved your review of this one Claire. I think we had a similar response to this book. The author has another one coming out this year, it was in the March A & U publicity catalogue. It’s called Painting in the Shadows.

      Liked by 1 person

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