Echo Publishing, Australia, 2020
In this, the third in the Alex Clayton art mystery series, Katherine Kovacic brings us a tale of dispossession, a weighty national theme that underpins and is mirrored in the crime story of this book.
It is a story of power and greed. It is this gravitas of the story of connection to land on a macro scale that makes the book particularly wonderful, elevating it to much, much more than a contemporary rural crime novel. The theme is then powerfully repeated in its underlayers.
Not that the crime novel should suffer from any sort of inferiority complex – here in this genre we see society reflected in all its glory and grime, no matter when the period or where the place.
Set in the Western District of Victoria, The Shifting Landscape focuses on the white squattocracy of the McMillan family, who have farmed the Kinloch property for generations – but Kinloch is on Gunditjmara land, site of the recently World Heritage listed Budj Bim. Kinloch itself has also absorbed the land of the smaller neighbouring property Seelie Court with a family inter-marriage into the bargain.
Art dealer Alex Clayton is called in by property owner Alisdair (Mac) McMillan to catalogue and value the property’s art collection, which is quite extensive and which turns out to include a fire-damaged Hugh Ramsay and a previously uncatalogued Eugene von Guérard, a painting which also signposts us to Indigenous dispossession with its vignette of a family group of Aboriginal people gazing towards what has been taken and lost.
Don’t get me wrong – this is a crime story up there with the best of them, with all the puzzles and misdirections of an Agatha Christie, a sizeable cast of possible suspects and motives, a murder, an attempted murder (twice), the theft of a painting (the valuable von Guérard) and the disappearance of a small child.
Travelling with the mystery is the lesser dispossession of John Porter, Alex’s conservator colleague and long-term close friend, whose dissolving marriage has been an ongoing plot in the series. It seems to have come to a turning point and with that, the possibility of a change in the relationship with Alex….
And then there is my beloved Hogarth, Alex’s wonderful Irish wolf hound, whose literary personality matches his size. In this book, Hogarth becomes a story hero. His disappearance at one stage of the story clearly shows us how much of a soul mate he is for Alex, her usual frang soid dissolving with his absence.
Suffice it to say that with all the courage and intelligence we expect of our fictional detectives, Alex cuts through the local old boys’ network, the family feuding and secrecy and the obfuscation, learning from Indigenous property manager, Harry, the story of his people’s land, and through her own plucky actions and insightful deduction the true story of the Kinloch crimes.
This is a beautifully written book. When one says a book is ‘unputdownable’, it is clearly a stretch of the truth of our everyday lives, but I read and read this one, unable to focus on anything else till story’s end. It is an immensely satisfying read and a clear demonstration of the author’s capacity not just to tell a great crime yarn, but also to understand the importance of place to us all and the necessity to find and acknowledge our Australian historical truths.
Awaiting the next Alex Clayton with unseemly anticipation.