Art dealer Alex Clayton is back, and conservator best friend John Porter and faithful hound Hogarth aren’t too far behind either. Invited to preview a new exhibition at the Melbourne International Museum of Art, they’re present to see museum staff unveil a supposedly cursed painting. But when one of the workers collapses and damages the artwork, and a senior conservator dies while working on the repairs, Alex and John begin to wonder if there really is more to the curse than they first thought, or if a decidedly more human element is at play.
Painting in the Shadows is the second novel in veterinarian-turned-art-historian Katherine Kovacic’s Alex Clayton art mysteries. In many ways, it’s a stronger effort than the first, with the historical flashbacks of The Portrait of Molly Dean abandoned, and with a greater focus on Alex and John, who carried the previous novel with their wonderfully realised friendship. Kovacic has capitalised on this relationship, filling it with genuine warmth and enjoyable banter, and it’s a pleasure to learn more about their pasts and watch them work together.
Set in 2001, both Alex and John’s almost encyclopedic knowledge gets them through the suitably twisty plotline – you won’t catch characters Googling artworks here! – and Kovacic’s own art historical background gets a workout too, with weather, locations, and characters compared to various paintings from throughout history. It’s a neat little touch, though it could have perhaps been used a little more sparingly. For non-art-lovers (and for those of us a little too lazy to search up as we go), this is likely to get rather monotonous, and, coupled with extensive explanations of conservation methods, it can read a little show-offy. Having your scenery evoke a certain work is fine, but give the reader a chance to see it through your words too – and when Kovacic shows such a wonderful talent for describing a painting, it’s a shame it’s not applied elsewhere.
It’s a little disappointing, too, that a book sold on the premise of a strong female lead was so lacking in female characters elsewhere. There were a number of them peppered throughout, but, other than Alex herself, they all too easily fell into frustratingly predictable roles. The bitter and jealous, the easily manipulated, the cunning and cold, the dead catalyst. In such a short novel, it’s not fair to expect any real development beyond the key protagonists, but it would have been nice to switch a few genders around and (here be spoilers) not leave Alex as the one woman standing by the end. One hopes Kovacic might have more up her sleeve for some of them, but whether Alex finds her own Moriarty in their midst (or at all) remains to be seen.
Lacking as it is in places, Painting in the Shadows remains an enjoyable romp through art history. Bolstered by a strong central relationship and a clear and genuine love of art, readers will fly through this well paced mystery – but have a tab open for Google image searches, just in case!