Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
The latest fictional account of her hero private detective, Alex Clayton, appears in Katherine Kovacic’s The Shifting Landscape. The story of a bickering family, located on a sheep station in western Victoria, is interesting enough. It would not carry the Kovacic stamp if it were not heavily laden with reference after reference to pieces of Australian art which, although their presence occasionally interferes with the flow of the story, are handled competently. A particularly annoying example is the reference to Jacques-Louis David’s 1788 portrait of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and his Wife that is accompanied by a rambling account of marginal or no reference to the novel (101).
The cover of the novel consists overall of muted colours, predominantly browns and greens. An integral part of the design is an incomplete picture frame that forms the margin. Standing out below the title is the black-coat-covered figure of a woman, who adds a suggestion of a Wuthering Heights Heathcliff. There is no suggestion of a Heathcliff in the novel, and I’m left pondering why the cover is designed the way it is. It is not a design that would draw attention to itself in a bookstore. One could speculate that part of the cover is Australia Felix, that terribly outdated term, used in the book but meaningless to most readers, including Australians. (In the interests of fairness, another reviewer found the cover to be ‘both powerful and relevant’. Interesting!).
Beautifully-written passages are readily found. This particular writer is well known for this ability. She evokes an image early in the book that is representative:
The landscape undulates gently, reminding me of a rumpled blanket. Sometimes it unfurls, smoothing out and giving us glimpses of a distant horizon; sometimes it envelops the road in a deep fold, and all we can see on either side is waving grass (6).
The beauty of this passage and others like it adds something valuable that lifts the tone to a new level. But this writer’s understanding of beauty in language is sometimes marred as in the following passage:
The sky outside is clear, the stars shimmering with that extra intensity caused by strong winds and turbulence somewhere in the upper atmosphere. It’s not a Van Gogh Starry Night sort of sky; more like one of Whistler’s darker Nocturnes; bright pin-pricks against the deepest blue-black (109).
The references to the two pieces of art simply kill the mood.
I’ve said little about the plot and/or story development. The story develops as it should in a smooth and controlled manner, one in which readers do not detect that the author is directing them to the keys that lead to a satisfying ending.
To try to give the storyline more substance, the author has included a second story alongside the main one of murder and theft (and art), that goes to the heart of Australia’s history. Many older Australians accepted the story told in schools years ago of Terra Nullius, the empty land. Having noticed aboriginal Australians in a painting, Alex is directed by Harry to a National Park where she discovers evidence of ancient stone huts and a sophisticated aquaculture system. (This particular area has now been added to the Australian National Heritage list for its importance to indigenous history and the individualistic nature of its geology).
One character dominates in this story, that of Alex Clayton, who has been invited to Kinlock Homestead by patriarch Alasdair McMillan (Mac) to appraise the artwork on the property. When he is found dead (by Alex), this amateur detective seems to be the only one who can solve the crime. Most of the other characters populating The Shifting Landscape are family members and local police as well as her sidekick art restorer John. For me, he is the most unbelievable character of all. They are all lightly developed; there is no substance in any of them, with the exception of Harry, a man who is always the outsider.
A sharp contrast is drawn between the ‘white’ character Doug, who had married into this family and lost his land to the McMillans, and Harry, the property manager, whose indigenous ancestors had been forced from this land. With more attention paid to developing the minor characters, Kovacic might have given her talents sufficient freedom to include more intrigue to the plot.
For the reader who follows the Alex Clayton Art Mystery Stories, once again she and her faithful dog Hogarth solve yet another mystery. The Shifting Landscape is a solid tale that keeps its audience attention, even though it might not send them in to raptures. Recommended.
By Katherine Kovacic