Gideon Haigh, A Scandal in Bohemia: The Life and Death of Mollie Dean

Penguin / Hamish Hamilton, 310 pp., ISBN: 9780143789574, p/bk, AUS$32.99

 Journalist Gideon Haigh is well-known for his engaging full-length works on cricket, business histories and, more recently, his histories of true crime cases, the most recent being: A Scandal in Bohemia: The Life and Death of Mollie Dean (2018).

A still-unsolved murder, Mollie Dean’s death was a premature and tragic end to a young woman’s life. Even if Dean’s killer, who one night in 1930 took Dean’s life as she was walking home, “was merely an opportunist, he found his target with cruel precision, cutting off in her prime a woman determined to advance, to transcend, to live” (p. 283, emphasis original).

Dean was ambitious and determined. An aspiring writer, and a muse for other creative practitioners, she lived in Melbourne. Occupying bohemian spaces in a period and place that did not fully accept the independent and liberated woman that Dean had crafted herself to be, her story has, until now, been elusive and obscured by the passage of time. Indeed, Dean’s story is a clear example of the complexities that surround wanting to forget a terrible event conflicting with the need to remember it. Many true crime readers prefer works with a neat, if still distressing, ending: perpetrators apprehended, punishments delivered. The mechanisms of justice move slowly — the work is labour intensive, fraught with the everyday messiness of people’s lives, the various motivations to do wrong, conflicting statements, unreliable witnesses, a near-endless search for evidence that will lead to a conviction and the task of forcing a system to meet the needs of, and respond to, very human situations — but the machinery grinds as best it can, offering some form of closure that allows society to move on. As a cold case, moving on from Mollie Dean is not a straightforward task. There is nobody to blame.

This, however, offers Haigh an opportunity that he embraces. Rather than focusing on the murderer, whose identity remains a mystery, this work focuses on the victim. Often the victims within true crime texts are mere plot devices that, much like the majority of examples of crime fiction, allows the work to unfold. Readers are invited to focus on examining the how and the why of murder in addition to the details of the investigation, quickly followed by a reassuring narrative of punishment. Such reassurances are not always available.

There were suspects at the time, but in many respects the real mystery of this case was the life, not the death, of Mollie Dean. From a single photograph, a Public Record Office file “of sixty-six pages of statements from thirty-nine witnesses that detectives had gathered in the course of their inquiries — neatly typed, double-spaced, and annotated by multiple unknown hands” (p. 12) and multiple references to Dean in popular culture, Haigh crafts a not only a fascinating true crime text but a compelling biography.

Supported by excellent research and rich visuals, A Scandal in Bohemia is a terrific tale of early twentieth-century Melbourne and one of the vibrant women who lived, and died, there.

 Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, June 2018

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