Reviewed by EB Heath
The second novel in the Alex Clayton art mystery series is advertised as ‘A captivating story of murder, intrigue and a mysterious painting’. And it is. But what is not said about Painting in the Shadows is that it is funny. A most amusing book to enjoy after a week’s work.
Painting in the Shadows is written entirely in the first person, the plot unfolds through the viewpoint of art dealer Alex Clayton. The humour is situated in the interactions between Alex and her best friend, John Porter, who is a much sought after conservator. Here Katherine Kovacic writes some sizzling dialogue. Readers get a firm sense of ‘being there’ through the intimacy of first person, the antics of Hogarth Alex’s enormous dog, and also by way of a steady flow of short, often witty, descriptions of each scene that Alex is observing. Alex often cites a famous painting to signify how she feels at the time:
The gesture is both tentative and possessive, reminding me of Rubens’ painting, The Artist and his first wife Isabella Brant in the Honeysuckle Bower.
Perhaps this is a little overdone, particularly when someone (I best not say who) is deliberately run over by a car. As Alex runs towards the victim, she likens the scene to an image of Edouard Manet’s The Dead Toreador. Who would have time to reference a painting in these circumstances? At this point the reader might think the narrative is there at the service of an Art History lesson that they are receiving by stealth. But there is much else to enjoy. Kovacic’s subtle foreshadowing keeps curiosity at a peak and a reader pressing on to discover what is going on within the walls of the fictional Melbourne International Museum of Art (MIMA).
Alex and John can hardly contain their enthusiasm when John is given permission to preview an exhibition of ‘Masterpieces of Victorian Britain’ at MIMA. It is during this time, as the paintings are being unpacked that one of the handling crew seemingly has a heart attack. Alex performs CPR and saves his life, but a Landseer painting Man Proposes, God Disposes has been badly damaged in the process. Apparently, the painting had a reputation for being cursed, a reputation that grows when, within twenty-four hours, a conservator, Meredith Buchanan, collapse and dies while attempting to repair the damage. It is then that John is asked to supervise the repair work. This situates John and Alex within MIMA to solve the mystery of Meredith’s death not quite believing the police verdict of suicide, nor placing much credence on the curse. Slowly, it is revealed that Meredith’s death lies at the foot of a much bigger mystery being played out within MIMA.
I can’t say I didn’t ‘see it coming’; nevertheless Painting in the Shadows is an amusing read. It was fun to share a weekend with Alex and John, and, of course, Hogarth. The side issue of John’s unhappy marriage and the tension of underlying feelings between the two friends suggest there will be more in the Alex Clayton series.
Katherine Kovacic is well placed to write on the subject of Art, after practicing as a veterinarian for a short time, she returned to university to complete a PhD in Art History. The Portrait of Molly Dean was her debut novel and the first Alex Clayton art mystery novel.
By Katherine Kovacic