Inspired by the true story of a sensational murder.
In 1930s Melbourne, an artist’s muse is brutally slain. Nearly 70 years later, art dealer Alex Clayton stumbles across a lost portrait of the murdered girl, Molly Dean. She buys the painting and sets out to uncover the details of the unsolved crime with the help of art conservator John Porter. But someone else is after the painting and vital records have disappeared. As Alex and John sift through the clues and deceptions that swirl around Molly’s death, the story of her last days unfolds amid Melbourne’s bohemian art world.
Because of my injured wrist, the drive to John’s studio is a very leisurely affair and Hogarth enjoys every moment, catching the breeze when we’re in motion and fixing other drivers with a considered doggy eye each time we pull up at the lights. Naturally if they have the temerity to whistle at him he abruptly turns his head, presenting them with an aloof profile until the lights change and we move off again.
By the time we arrive at the studio, my wrist is throbbing but I’m feeling much brighter. I talked it out with Hogarth during the drive, and have decided that the sooner Molly is out of my life, the better. I’ll type up what I have of the painting’s provenance and Molly’s story—emphasising her relationship with Colin and the poignancy of the portrait given her untimely death—then I’ll make some calls to a few of my collectors. If that doesn’t work, I’ll put Molly’s portrait in an auction and feed the gruesome details to a stringer I know who does stuff for the Herald Sun. I figure that should whip up plenty of interest outside the regular art-buying fraternity.
John must have been listening for the car because he’s out the door before I even pull the key out of the ignition.
‘Hogarth!’ John opens the back door and tries to unbuckle the harness but his efforts are hampered by Hogarth’s excited squirming. After a few attempts he manages it and the two of them explode from the car like some sort of clown act.
‘Hound loves his Uncle John.’ I shake my head as the two of them face each other and bounce on the balls of their feet, feinting left and right before Hogarth rears up on his hind legs and thumps his paws onto John’s shoulders. John lets out an audible ‘umpf’ and staggers slightly but manfully manages to keep it together. Then Hogarth sticks his nose in John’s eye socket and I can see it’s all about to go south.
‘Four on the floor, buddy.’ Hogarth reluctantly drops his front feet to the ground. John’s face is red.
‘When will you learn not to razz him up if you haven’t seen him for a while?’
John has the grace to look a bit sheepish. ‘I just wasn’t expecting the nose. Anyway, subject change.’ He scrutinises me closely from large sunnies to parti-colour wrist to my boot tips. ‘You look like a mob wife with domestic issues.’
‘Thank you so very much. Perhaps you’d like to shut up and bring the paintings inside now?’
John moves to the boot of my car then hesitates and turns back. ‘I’m so glad you’re okay, Alex.’ He steps forward and gives me a hug. ‘I’d be bored witless if I didn’t have you around.’
‘Yeah well,’ I squeeze back. ‘Good job I only hit my head or I might have actually damaged something.’
‘I wasn’t going to go there, but now that you mention it . . .’ He steps back out of reach as I make to slap him and we grin at each other for a moment, then he gives me a salute and pivots back to the car, grabs all four paintings in one go and leads Hogarth and me into his studio.
Once his harness is off, Hogarth pokes around for a few minutes before finding a clear area of floor to settle. John unfolds the blankets from each of my paintings just enough to see what the bundles contain before he puts them to one side. The third one is the portrait of Molly Dean and he drops her shroud to the floor then turns and places her on his easel. He slides the top clamp down and twists the wing nut gently, holding the painting in place. Molly looks a little lost against the frame of John’s studio easel. It’s not designed to be portable, but is built to safely support larger canvases weighing up to fifty or sixty kilos. Molly is a waif by comparison.
John steps back and folds an arm across his chest, cradling the opposite elbow. His chin dips into his free hand and he stands there, regarding Molly, taking in every inch of the canvas and every nuance of her face. ‘She’s much prettier than I’d realised. I’ve seen the dumpy photo that was in all the newspapers, and of course her face is hidden in the nude, but she’s actually quite stunning.’ He comes in close and drops his glasses from his forehead to the bridge of his nose. ‘Varnish is discoloured and the whole thing has dried into the canvas quite a bit, but should come up well.’ He grabs a jumbo cotton bud and sucks it for a moment then rolls the wet tip gently across Molly’s cheek. Immediately her skin glows a delicate pink, the spot standing out so dramatically against the rest of the painting that it seems as though she is blushing.
‘It always amazes me that spit is a legitimate restoration tool.’ I step forward so John and I are shoulder to shoulder in front of the painting.
‘Just the right balance of enzymes, and if I work on a big canvas it has the added advantage of keeping me off coffee and alcohol! Too hard to use it all the time, though, and not strong enough if a painting is really filthy or fly specked or something like that.’
‘Well Hogarth has an abundance of saliva. I’m sure he’d be happy to drool in your general vicinity.’
‘I suspect the properties of dog drool may be different, but if you’d like to volunteer the painting as well as the dog, I’ll give it a whirl.’
‘Maybe another time. How about we take the frame off and confirm the signature?’
John looks at the painting again, bending down to touch the place where the writing disappears under the frame. Then he shifts his gaze to the top of the canvas, where a faint line is visible running left to right, about a centimetre from the frame. ‘The canvas has slipped. But you noticed the line, right?’
‘Sure. The signature would have been clear when it was originally framed and the canvas has just worked a bit loose and dropped, which is good, because I want to put her back in this frame when she’s all cleaned up.’
‘Right, let’s get on with it then.’ John unclamps the painting and carries it to his workbench where he lies it face down. ‘Geez, you didn’t even make a start and take the paper off?’
‘Started to, got sidetracked,’ I shrug.
John grabs a mylar sleeve and his knife and I turn away. I figure I’ll have a browse among the paintings John’s working on right now and then put the kettle on for morning tea. As I edge my way toward the back of the studio, I hear the crinkle of old paper and the whisper of the knife separating it from the back of the frame. I reach a pile of canvases leaning against the wall and start to look through them, leafing them apart and tilting them forward like a giant set of files.
‘What?’ I carefully replace the paintings and turn toward John, craning to see him around the easel.
‘There’s an envelope here.’
‘What are you on about now?’
‘Tucked in the back of the painting, wedged between the stretcher and the canvas. There’s an envelope.’ He’s hunched over his workbench, staring at the back of the painting.
‘Are you having me on with more of your conspiracy bullshit? Because I’m seriously over the whole thing.’
John turns to look at me.
He jerks his head in the direction of the painting. ‘Get over here and see for yourself.’
My head feels strange and light as I pick my way across the studio. For a moment I wonder if I’m actually concussed after yesterday, but then I focus on the sensation and realise that I’m just slightly freaked out by this. ‘It’s probably nothing.’ I’m not sure if I’m saying it for John’s benefit or mine.
‘Sure. I come across this sort of thing all the time. Envelopes stuffed with cash, the family jewels, last will and testament. Just another day in the office for me.’ John’s voice drips with irony.
I reach the workbench and lean over John’s shoulder as he scooches to one side. It’s a largish envelope, about A5 size and a rich cream colour. It looks like quite a heavy sort of bonded paper and the flap, which is facing us, has been stuck down. The envelope bulges slightly, hinting at a secret larger than a single page could bear. The lower edge of the envelope has been tucked between the canvas and the stretcher, not pushed down so far that the bulk of the envelope would push into the canvas, but far enough to hold it in place, although it would have flopped around without the paper covering the back of the painting helping to hold the whole thing there. I pick up the piece of paper that John has just removed and look at the framer’s label again. The work was done by a venerable Melbourne firm, popular with the leading artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I give the label a tap.
‘That address and phone number puts it pre-1933, so the envelope must have gone in when the painting was first framed.’
‘Unless that’s what someone wants you to think. You could get an old label from somewhere and just paste it on . . .’ John trails off as I give him a dirty look. ‘Maybe I have an overactive imagination.’
‘So shall we see?’
‘It’s probably just a bunch of exhibition reviews or I don’t know, a copy of the catalogue?’
‘Okay, I may be getting carried away, but you’re just pissing in the wind now. What artist ever stuffed their reviews in the back of a painting? C’mon Alex.’
‘So open it.’ I bat my hand irritably between John’s face and the envelope.
He gives it a gentle tug and the canvas releases it with a sigh.
Katherine Kovacic was a veterinarian but preferred hanging out with dogs to taking their temperatures. She has a PhD in art history and spends her spare time writing and teaching other people’s dogs to ride skateboards. The Portrait of Molly Dean will be published by Echo (an imprint of Bonnier Publishing Australia) in May 2018.
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