Review: The Portrait of Molly Dean

I started 2019 off by reading a book set in Australia and finished it the same way. Not by design of course but by happy accident. I actually found this book when I was looking through the Mystery/Thriller shelves at one of the bigger bookshops in Wellington. It sounded pretty good so I was content to make it my last read of the year. 

The Portrait of Molly Dean is set in Melbourne (Australia) of the present and past. Alex Clayton is a woman who buys and sells artworks. It has to be said that she is not a big time art dealer but she knows her subject matter and does her homework. And while not being a pushover or sentimental about the material she handles, she is honest in her work. At one auction she attends she happens upon an unattributed portrait of an unknown woman and ultimately purchases it after she correctly identifies both artist and sitter (not that she tells anyone else).

While researching the picture in the hopes of adding more value come sale time she investigates the mysterious death of the woman in the picture, Molly Dean, an up and coming writer who moved in artistic circles, that was brutally murdered just after it was completed. Beaten to death in an alley near ehr home, no one was ever convicted of the crime and it remained unsolved.  

The narrative jumps between ‘current day’ circa 1999 with Alex’s investigation and 1930 as we follow Molly’s last days. We learn that she had an unhappy home life due to a rocky relationship with her conservative mother and wanted to leave her teaching job to write full time. She was a woman who wanted to go places, both socially and professionally, and that made her enemies, some more dangerous than others. 

I enjoyed this book. I certainly made my way through it very quickly. At no time did it lag or make me want to skip ahead through boredom. And I think this is the result of the writing style. It didn’t mire itself in long winded descriptions. It generally got to the point with a minimum of fuss. There were one or two passages that were needed to set a scene but otherwise we were pushed along through the story at a reasonable clip. 

Some might find this a weakness, making the storytelling a bit mechanical and, yes, the book could have been much longer and in depth had more attention been paid to intricate explanations of this, that and the other thing. But I liked it as it was. A fast paced historical murder mystery. It did take a somewhat unexpected left turn plot wise half way through but I soon adjusted and was happy to continue on reading.

And I do think it has a terrific story that I later discovered, as I read the end notes, was very much based in the reality of a real case. The author has of course added in her own characters and plot but the core crime did actually take place which gave it an added dimension in retrospect. 

And while I wasn’t deeply emotionally involved with any of the players in the drama (I neither hated or loved any of them), it was still quite unnerving and disturbing when Molly meets her end. My tummy turned over a few times I must say. Again it wasn’t overdone and, for me at least, this was beneficial for the story. Enough of the violence was described to make the impact of what was happening quite clear but not so graphic that I felt like chucking up the coffee I had just finished drinking. Trust me, I have put books down, never to pick up again because I felt they overindulged in these more gruesome and gory aspects of the plot. 

I will be honest and say that while this is not great literature and that’s ok by the way, in all fairness it never makes any claims to be and it was exactly what I needed and felt like at the time. So I am very glad I picked it up. Sometimes all you want is something that helps distract you and pass the time away, and this read did just that. Nothing flash or fancy or ground breaking – just a good solid book that you could probably finish it one one sitting if you are a fast reader so it would make a good afternoon addition to your completed reads pile. 

(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)

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