THE SHIFTING LANDSCAPE by Katherine Kovacic (Echo)
Katherine Kovacic’s third novel in her series about art dealer Alex Clayton is a nice mixture of murder mystery, art history and rural drama.
Set in the well described Western District of Victoria, it opens with Alex, and her beloved Irish Wolfhound Hogarth, being invited to the historic sheep station of Kinloch, which has been owned by the McMillan family since the 1840’s. The head of the family, ‘Mac’, wants Alex to value the McMillan art collection which is spread across the sprawling residence and even stacked in the barn. Alex quickly identifies an important, previously unknown colonial painting and and calls on her friend and art restorer John to come and help her assess the painting. Before he arrives, however, ‘Mac’ dies in suspicious circumstances and in the midst of a family dispute the painting goes missing. Keen to leave the drama behind, Alex decides to return to Melbourne, but when a toddler and her precious Hogarth goes missing, she is forced to stay, even though her own life may be at risk.
The Shifting Landscape is a well constructed crime novel that makes good use of its setting and the ongoing issue of indigenous ownership. The rural landscape is well described and important to the story and Alex’s side trip to the Tyrendarra Indigenous Protected Area is fascinating. The art history details are also very interesting, smoothly conveyed and skillfully woven into the crime fabric of the novel. The ‘whodunit’ elements are well done and Katherine keeps the reader guessing as to the identity of the killer until the final bloody denouement.
A strong point of the novel is the subtlety of the characters and the intricacies of the relationships between the key players in the story. Katherine skillfully creates believable characters that, with the possible exception of the patriarchal ‘Mac’, avoid the stereotypes we so often find in crime fiction. Alex Clayton is a finely wrought character, with a credible mixture of intelligence, forthrightness and determination, but also with a touch of vulnerability at times. Her relationship with John is complex and interesting, but it is Katherine’s depiction of the connection between Alex and her much loved Hogarth which dominates the book. Katherine’s portrayal of the Wolfhound is particularly well done and full of emotion, and all dog owners will instantly fall in love with Hogarth.
My concerns with the book are minor. The pacing could have been brisker at times, although Katherine largely redeems this with bursts of energy and gunfire towards the end. Also on reflection, some of the elements of the books’ centrepiece, the search for Hogarth and the missing toddler, do not make complete sense, but this is easily overlooked in the emotional drama that the search generates.
Overall, The Shifting Landscape is a well crafted and very enjoyable crime novel that raises some important issues about the ongoing legacy of Australia’s past. It also comes with a beautifully designed cover and is the ideal book for those who want to be well entertained while supporting local Australian writers during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Between four and four and a half stars out of five!
The Shifting Landscape is published by Echo and retails for $29.99.