A Scandal in Bohemia
In 1930-31, the worthy citizens of Melbourne were gripped by a brutal and depraved unsolved murder that filled the tabloids. Mollie Dean, a 25-year-old special education teacher, was sexually assaulted and killed in an Elwood laneway on her way home after an evening at the theatre with friends. Dean was sexy, beautiful and ambitious; a poet, aspiring novelist and artists’ model, and a mistress of Colin Colahan, a prominent Melbourne painter. In this latest addition to his true crime oeuvre, Melbourne journalist and polymath Gideon Haigh attempts to uncover Dean’s life as well as her death.
The facts about Mollie’s life are slim, despite Haigh’s admirable scholarship, and he knows it. “With her solitary photograph, missing detail and reticent family, Mollie Dean felt at times like the chalked outline of her body in that Elwood laneway,” he writes. Sometimes this leads to tenuous links with Dean that appear as wishful thinking on Haigh’s part, such as Bertrand Russell and his book Marriage and Morals, which Haigh introduces with: “One book … that Mollie perhaps borrowed …” Mostly, though, Haigh makes a virtue of necessity by broadening his story in three directions. Even without Dean’s murder as a fulcrum, the book is a fascinating exploration of the strife and allegiances of the Meldrumites, one of Melbourne’s cliquish artistic circles. Haigh also positions Dean’s independent spirit and sexual liberation within a broader context of the struggles of female writers and artists of the day.
The clearest picture of Dean herself appears in reflections Haigh finds in the art of others. As well as Colahan’s paintings, the unpublished novels of Dean’s associates and contemporary fictions such as Katherine Kovacic’s The Portrait of Molly Dean, Haigh finds Dean as Jessica Wray and Colahan as Sam Burlington in George Johnston’s My Brother Jack. Johnston was a long-time friend of Colahan’s and it’s satisfying to read Haigh’s unpicking of all that has been lost in the shift from Dean to Wray.
As the title suggests, the scandal is found beyond Dean – it is in the city’s bohemia, and Haigh’s evocation of ’20s Melbourne is terrific. Also intriguing are the too-slim parts that describe his own investigations. It seems there’s a complete story here as well: perhaps Haigh might consider The Search for a Scandal in Bohemia, à la Grenville, for a future book. LS
Hamish Hamilton, 320pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 7, 2018 as "Gideon Haigh, A Scandal in Bohemia ". Subscribe here.