Books, Reviews

‘The Shifting Landscape’ review: Western Victoria crime novel showcases joy in storytelling

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Crime novels are the most borrowed books in libraries. Ingenious plotting attracts readers and so too, it seems, does violence. And yet, crime fiction is no different from other writing: all the action, drama, mystery, revelations and violence in the world does not make up for a lack of structure or economy of style. Even with fast-paced stories where every page turns up a shocking development, every chapter a bloodied body, you can tell when a writer has the knack of sentence structure, of cadence, rhythm and detail selection. Even with the good crime writers, it can all get a bit formulaic, but those whose work is most popular usually have the writing skills alongside the ability to make up intriguing stories.

Katherine Kovacic is a good writer. Her latest crime novel, the third featuring a woman who is an art consultant, is set in Hamilton in Victoria’s western country, so it’s another in the current flourishing crop of rural crime. This murder mystery may not be gruesome enough for those who only read crime, and it may be too formulaic for those who don’t read crime at all. For the rest of us, it’s just right.

Author Katherine Covacic

Let me first of all temper what might sound like a criticism when I say it’s formulaic: the lead character, Alex Clayton, is smart, funny, idiosyncratic and gets herself into more trouble than you’d ever imagine an art consultant could attract. She’s got a romantic thing happening with a friend, who works as a conservator, and this backstory hums along nicely alongside the main plot. The story even follows that always-reliable Agatha Christie pattern: a series of incidents that gradually reveal the prime suspects followed by a drawing-room denouement. Kovacic has a very fine time with all these elements, and she clearly understands why genre is attractive for readers.

Then, there’s the history, the landscape, and a dog. Very fine combination.

The Shifting Landscape isn’t as weighty as Andrew McGahan’s gorgeously gothic The White Earth, which won him a Miles Franklin Award in 2005, but it does have similarities. McGahan was inspired by a colonial mansion on the Queensland plains and was also interested in uncovering the Indigenous history. In Kovacic’s The Shifting Landscape a house also holds centre stage. In an endnote, she says “Kinloch” doesn’t exist – but places like it certainly do and her story maps the territory very well. She also writes enthusiastically about the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape of this Western District and takes Alex out to visit the Tyrendarra Indigenous Protected Area, now famous for its eel traps. The way she weaves that landscape and history into her mystery story is very satisfying.

The plot is simple but strong. Alex is summonsed by Alasdair McMillan to do a valuation on the family art collection at Kinloch, a sheep station near Hamilton. With her dog, a wolfhound so magnificently clever and obedient it isn’t fair (to those whose terriers are magnificently naughty), she heads out of Melbourne, hoping, rather than expecting, to discover among the sheep dung and canola fields a colonialist masterpiece. A Eugene von Guerard, say, or a previously unknown Hugh Ramsay.

This murder mystery may not be gruesome enough for those who only read crime, and it may be too formulaic for those who don’t read crime at all. For the rest of us, it’s just right.

Her hopes are not in vain: the artworks are well worth her visit and one she values at an enormous sum while another, also valuable, needs restoring. Enter John, who readers of earlier Kovacics (The Portrait of Molly Dean, Painting in the Shadows) will remember is not just Alex’s colleague but a dear friend with a difficult personal life.

It’s not giving anything away to tell you Alasdair dies (it’s on the cover blurb), in what at first seems like an accident. The plot thickens when it becomes clear it was not, and, even as Alex tries to leave behind this family drama about succession, money and land, she is drawn in so deeply that her life is in danger.

Alex narrates the story, which is tricky because it means she can only tell us what she knows or guesses. Using the present tense (“I woke”… “he frowns”… “it’s eight in the morning”) allows Alex to cast herself as the central character even while telling a story that is already complete, and Kovacic’s control is pretty much faultless throughout. It does mean, occasionally, Alex can sound a little pleased with herself, but it also means she can confess both her vulnerability and yearnings.

As for the other characters, their portraits are necessarily economical sketches but sufficient to keep the who, why and wherefores of the plot interesting. The dog, Hogarth, is a little more fleshed out than the rest, but he also has a crucial role to play, so that’s fair enough.

Kovacic’s bio note tells us she was a vet, before going back to university to gain a PhD in art history. Both dog training and art valuation are things she has in common with her Alex, it seems. They are both witty, too. From the pastries in the Hamilton cake shop to the lava flow of the Stony Rises, The Shifting Landscape is meticulously researched and what really carries this along is the buoyancy, the joy in storytelling.

It is also an irresistible enticement to visit Budj Bim.

The Shifting Landscape by Katherine Kovacic is published by Echo.

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