In 1930 a young woman walking home late at night was killed in an laneway in Elwood. The death of Mollie Dean is an unsolved, murder mystery with artistic connections in Melbourne’s literary, music and visual arts.
Although the crime has all the elements of a lurid true crime story, the murder of a young woman with a violently possessive mother and salacious artistic companions. Haigh’s book is much more than that, focusing on the life and career of Dean rather than her brutal death.
Haigh is well known for his books on cricket and his skill in describing one of the world’s most boring sports lends itself well to explaining Melbourne’s cultural scene in 1920s. Especially when he writes about the self-obsessed group of painters known as the Meldrumites including the founder of the artist colony of Montsalvat, Justus Jorgensen. Although Mollie Dean’s lover was the painter, Colin Colahan was never considered a suspect the artists thought the murder was all about them and their reputations.
Haigh doesn’t have any new conclusions or evidence about the crime his research in finding and putting together the details of a young woman’s life is amazing. The difficult search for her few published stories and poems in small Australian publications is heroic.
It is these sidetracks in the story, the background of Melbourne’s history that make for a great true crime story. I was disappointed that there was nothing more on the lead detective Percy Lambell who investigated Melbourne’s first art theft a few years earlier; as there is probably a book yet to be written about him.
Unfortunately there are so many fictional versions of the crime at the end of the book that the true crime is overshadowed. The fictional versions of the murder of Mollie Dean distort the facts with fiction. One of the fact that this type of crime is all too common for women to be killed as they walk home. Although Haigh does look at the difference in opportunities and reputations between the sexes in Melbourne at the time but male violence against women remains unexamined.
Gideon Haigh A Scandal in Bohemia, the life and death of Mollie Dean (Hamish Hamilton, 2018)