There’s a fairly high chance you’ve never heard of the Public Record Office Victoria, the State Government of Victoria’s archives. In keeping with its location in the industrial, unfashionable end of North Melbourne, it’s the poor cousin of Victoria’s major arts institutions. And though lacking in trendy allure, skilfully channelled for instance by the recent Triennial Extra night festival held at National Gallery of Victoria or the studious splendour of the dome of the State Library, there’s reason enough to become better acquainted with the archives’ rich collection.
At least in size it’s no shirking violet; the collection extends to almost 100km. The documents, photographs, maps, plans and ephemera that make up the archives’ holdings are a fraction of the records that pass through the hands of our State’s public servants. These have been deemed worthy of long-term preservation. This includes over forty-five registered files pertinent to the life and horrific death of Mollie Dean in 1930, the subject of journalist and author Gideon Haigh’s most recent book. True crime is having a bit of a moment right now. Or so I’ve been told, though perhaps this ubiquity is really more a case of greater access to more content, driven by the on-demand gateways of Netflix documentaries, and my own field, podcasts.
While more widely known as a seasoned cricket journalist, A Scandal in Bohemia: The Life and Death of Mollie Dean follows on the heels of previous works by Gideon which inquire into the personal histories of 20th Century Australians marred by a disruptive criminal event. His 2015 publication Certain Admissions: A Beach, A Body and a Lifetime of Secrets won a Ned Kelly Award for Best True Crime. Gideon notes that true crime is somewhat of a misnomer; his 2018 publication may best be described as real crime. ‘The idea that murder can be “solved”‘ he writes, ‘comforts the crime consumer, freeing us to revel in the dispelling of mystery by the force of reason and the quelling of violence by order, and to take in a share in the therapeutic solace of “closure” and the pleasuring ring of “justice”‘.
Comforting indeed. I’m not the only millennial I’m aware of whom almost nightly queues up rolling episodes of US crime stories on their laptop, lulled into slumber by their cyclic formula, the gratification of resolution and familiar otherness of American voices. It might be a jungle—over there—but no crime is left behind.
Gideon is upfront that A Scandal in Bohemia offers no such assuaging balm by final chapter’s end. It is nonetheless a work of restorative power, a tonic against the tide of forces which have reduced its female protagonist to the roles of artist’s muse, and then victim—’all that most came to know of [Mollie] was how that wake trailed away.’ A Scandal in Bohemia provides an overdue, comprehensive investigation into the life of Mollie Dean, a tenacious and charismatic aspiring novelist who ultimately remained an outsider, even within the society with whom she is most associated.
I must own up to my reluctance to properly explore Australia’s early to mid-century bohemians. I was only rudimentarily aware of Mollie’s artist lover Colin Colahan, and the Meldrumites circle in which they both moved. Something about their brazen foppishness plain irked me, perhaps a perfunctory reaction owing to our nation’s notorious anti-intellectual sentiment. Has not the word ‘bohemian’ itself fallen into naff territory? Only a few weeks back I inwardly cringed when a colleague claimed this word as a useful descriptor for my own lifestyle, later rather raucously joking to friends ‘I think they might be romanticising dirty share houses and drinking at the pub just a little bit much.’
As it transpired I was a poor connoisseur. Gideon’s novel is as much an illumination of the intriguing under culture of this bohemian subculture—or at least as it was in Mollie’s time—as it is an investigation into her death. Claiming to be champions of non-conformity, Melbourne’s bohemian salons of the late 1920s into 1930 still valued many social norms and privileges, albeit less overtly. For those who have imagined themselves part of a contemporary ‘scene’, this may well be a recognisable rub. Our current music industry, most likely topping the hierarchy of raw cool in the arts world, is also arguably the most regressive when it comes to gender and cultural inclusiveness.
In the fallout that followed her death, Mollie’s friends again exposed the limitations of their ‘bohemian’ ethos by reverting to more conventional accounts of their relationships. This behaviour Gideon explains was likely a pragmatic tactic employed to dampen press speculation about their perceived sexually transgressive conduct, aimed at both preserving their cultural capital and its spoils, including patronage, and also to afford a measure of privacy.
Certainly, the precarious state of the artist’s livelihood and the personal toll of being embroiled in a media storm invites some degree of empathy with their position. However, we may reflect less generously on the bohemians and others who choose to spin certain details of the Mollie affair for far more self-serving, vain or even hostile purposes. Such sleights have meant that in the wash-up, it is these versions of the events which have persisted in subsequent retellings. Although as former Victorian Police Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon commented at the book’s April launch, partial-disclosure and similarly orchestrated performances continue to play out in today’s police investigations.
Gideon chose to launch A Scandal in Bohemia at the Public Record Office, explaining that as this was the place where most of the work for the novel had taken place, it was an auspicious choice. As a regular visitor for over 28 years, Gideon has witnessed the various incarnations of this unassuming institution. This includes time spent at its former premises in the wild west, better known as the suburb of Laverton—a glorified tin shed plagued by infestations of pests, dust, mould, and so I’ve been told a few rouge archivists who spent much of their lunch hours playing ping pong. In the 2000s, it moved to its current purpose-built, environmentally controlled home, in North Melbourne on the site of the former government printing press where much of the collection was originally created.
There can be satisfaction in going back. By returning to Mollie’s story, giving it the breadth and completeness garnered by rigorous research, from Gideon’s book we find ourselves not returned to the status quo of True Crime’s fabled orderly society but nevertheless walking away with a measure of reparative peace.
Carly Godden is one half of Dead & Buried podcast, a series which explores underground true crime and hidden histories of Melbourne and beyond. Produced with co-creator and co-host Lee Hooper, Season Two is expected to be released in mid 2018. Season One of Dead & Buried is freely available on all podcasting platforms or at deadandburiedpodcast.com