Category Archives: writing

Review: Painting in the Shadows by Katherine Kovacic

After her fabulous debut, The Portrait of Molly Dean, Katherine Kovacic brings us another Alex Clayton mystery set in Melbourne’s art world.

Set in 2000, a year after the events in The Portrait of Molly Dean, art dealer Alex Clayton and her best friend, art conservator John Porter, are visiting the Melbourne International Museum of Art (the NGV in fictional disguise) for a preview of their latest exhibition.

A bittersweet note is already struck as it’s clear Alex has a mysterious but clearly unhappy past with MIMA. Alex’s discomfort is soon shoved aside first by the collapse of a gallery worker which damages the key piece for display (the real 1864 Landseer painting, Man Proposes, God Disposes, which remains undamaged by fiction) and soon after, the death of the gallery’s senior conservator Meredith Buchanan in front of the very painting she’s meant to be repairing.

Alex and John immediately notice some oddities about Meredith’s death and some of the items found where she died. The police, unfamiliar with the nuances of the art world, aren’t receptive to their doubts, inclined to believe the death a suicide.

As naturally nosy people, Alex and John decide at once that they’ll poke around some of these discrepancies and oddities they’ve found to see if there’s anything in it, and to hand over any evidence of murder to the police.

We all know how that tends to work out in a mystery novel.

John is quickly employed to oversee the restoration of such a valuable painting, giving Alex reason to mooch around the place as well, so they have plenty of opportunity to ask questions, go into cupboards looking for skeletons and generally be amateur sleuths.

The real Landseer, Man Proposes, God Disposes, makes a fictional appearance. Image from Wikipedia.

Alex and John’s long friendship is shown to wonderful advantage as they collude in how to follow up their hunches and suspicions. Their whole relationship is given more texture by the personal problems they’re each facing. Alex’s art dealership isn’t providing financial stability, and hanging around the gallery is making her reflect on that lost chance at MIMA all those years ago when the unnamed scandal saw her kicked out of the gallery. John’s difficult marriage is an earthy personal counterpoint to Alex’s professional woes.

One of the great charms of Kovacic’s books is how she brings her personal knowledge and love of art history to her work. Alex is surely channelling Kovacic in her capacity to talk with engaging passion and clarity about what a picture or artist means to her without disappearing down a well of art wank. (That said, there’s a hilarious scene in which Alex and John deploy art wank strategically for investigative purposes which is a favourite!)

Painting in the Shadows is nicely paced, balanced well between the mystery, Alex and John’s personal and professional troubles, the many other relationships, and the world of art. It’s clever and engaging, the protagonists are likeable and the denouement neat.

After the resolution to the mystery, enough personal titbits remain to fill in the background for another book.

There is going to be another book, isn’t there Ms Kovacic?

Buy Painting in the Shadows (RRP$29.95)

A Writer’s Library

Every writer has a reference library of some kind. I’d like to introduce you to mine!

The physical part of it at least. I also have a collection of ebooks and PDFs, including the 1894 Baedeker’s guide to London and its Environs and copies of The Strand Magazine from 1891.  I also have newspaper clippings and saved web pages relating to crimes, science and all manner of strangeness which I think I’ll need for upcoming projects.

My reference library is stuffed full – I will soon have to start balancing new books on top!

My two shelves of reference books are packed to bursting with books about forensics, London, music, queer history, 19th century medicine and medieval society. Not all of the related books have been written yet, but some research on Victorian-era underwear and sailing ships was used in writing The Adventure of the Colonial Boy. and the medieval books were used to write the origin story for Kitty and Cadaver – Hoorfrost – which is in my upcoming short story collection Scar Tissue and Other Stories.

The top shelf is home to much history and science of forensics (mainly for use in my Sherlock Holmes stories so I get the science correct for the era) and books about Victorian London. I have several on the history of queer London of the era and trans history, in part for canon-era Holmes♥Watson stories and partly for something I’m planning set in 1890s Melbourne.

The music books are used for the Duo Ex Machina series and for Kitty and Cadaver. The British folklore will be used in the as yet unwritten sequel to Kitty and Cadaver, which I’ll get to eventually.

In the centre of the bottom shelf are the notebooks full of research I’ve conducted in the British Library: they contain notes about medieval London, pages and pages on Frost Fairs, Victorian-era clothing and culture; many pages about ravens, and the history of the London Underground.

For my Melbourne-based stories, the Melway is invaluable. (I use Google Maps for London locales when I’m not actually in London – I used both methods for Ravenfall. I really should get a London A-Z.) I’ll use The Australian Hostess Cookbook in the third Gary and Lissa book (also on the cards in due course, after The Opposite of Life is reissued by Clan Destine Press). I’ve also been learning more about 1890s Melbourne, but I don’t expect to get to that project until at least next year.

These are two very tiny books that my mum had in her shelves of Indigenous place names and words. I’m not sure yet when or how I’ll use them, but they’re there when I need them.

I’m often finding new books to add – I’ve picked up several new ones on bees and British wildlife for a project I’m looking at later this year. Among the books I’ve collected over the last year are The Butchering Art , about the work of Joseph Lister (yes, Listerine is named for him) who pioneered antiseptics in 19th century surgery. The fictional Dr Watson would have graduated from medical school at about the time Lister’s ideas were actually being accepted and taught.

You can also see jammed among the titles three wonderful secondhand bookstore finds: The Scientist would definitely be a book in my vampire Gary Hooper’s library. A Girl at Government House states it’s the diaries of a young girl in service in Australia in the 1880s and 90s, and Two Years Before the Mast is an account of a man’s life at sea in the mid 19th century, so it’ll be another layer of primary-document information to help make my Victorian era fiction if not accurate then at least less inaccurate.

Why yes, I do have rather a lot of potential projects in my future. And this doesn’t count the several I haven’t actually mentioned yet!

Feel free to ask me about any of the books you can see in those shelves. I aim to write about a few more of them as I use them (and discover if they will serve their purpose well enough!)