Cloudland by Joseph Olshan
Well here we go with another beautifully written book. The prose is just a delight to read as you’d expect from an author who has won “awards”. The protagonist in this new novel Cloudland by Joseph Olshan (Minotaur Books, 2012) mirrors the author’s own career experiences as a journalist and a teacher of writing in higher education. Except she’s given up the high life and now files copy in a folksy vein. Perhaps a little bit of wish-fulfillment there — except for the involvement in a murder investigation, of course.
So, we’re off into the depths of the rural countryside where everyone knows everyone else, or at least thinks they do. I suppose this is a quintessentially American phenomenon where small groups of people huddle together as self-reliant individuals in a somewhat hostile environment. This part of Vermont is locked in winter for long periods fore and aft of Christmas. Particularly when the snow comes and shuts down the roads, the predominant feelings of loneliness and alienation grow more acute. For those off the beaten track like the three families living along the dirt road forming the titular Cloudland, winter can mean quite long periods cut off from the world until the snow ploughs finish clearing the blacktopped roads. Here lives Catherine Winslow with her two ageing dogs and guard pig. A little further along, we find Anthony Waite, a psychologist whose marriage is in trouble, and Paul Winter, a reasonably famous artist with an adopted son who lives in the nearby village/township. This is the upper class end of the community which encompasses a complete social scale down to one of the most essential roles in a truly rural community: the knacker who hauls the dead animals away and boils them down.
As the snow melts, Catherine finds a body that had been covered by the drifts. She recognises the woman and calls the local police. The investigation links this death to others. More disconcertingly, there may be a connection to a book she owns. As a collector, she has many rare and obscure volumes including a fragment by Wilkie Collins. The facts suggest the killer may have read this Victorian outline, yet that would mean Catherine would probably know the killer. Adding to the complications, a young man with whom she had a passionate affair now contacts her and asks to come back into her life. This faces her with a real emotional problem. She still has feelings the man but, when she was terminating the relationship two years earlier, he attacked her. Having had a cooling-off period of no contact other than a few letters, are there any circumstances in which a woman abused should even want to meet with someone who made a violent attack upon her?
I found the emotional core of the book to be reasonably credible. In a long life, I’ve known one or two women in Catherine’s position and recognise the dilemma. The responses of her daughter and local friends also feel right. But I have two problems with the plot as it develops. The first is her reaction when she’s actually invited to be involved in the investigation. Having been a journalist on a national newspaper, you would expect her to be a lot more proactive. Why, you might ask yourself, would an investigative journalist make a good amateur detective? The answer is a journalist has to be scrupulously careful because, any mistake can lead to complete loss of reputation and a big civil action for defamation. Except, instead of bringing her undoubted expertise to bear, she’s quite passive, preferring to leave Anthony Waite to make the running. Even when those with experience of criminal matters point out she may be a target, there’s no real sign of panic. She’s very slow to leave the isolated house to stay with her daughter. It’s convenient for the author but not completely in character unless we want to put it down to the damage to her self-confidence caused by the attack on her. Then we come to my own personal experience as a life-long book collector. I have never ever loaned one of my more rare first editions to anyone. The mere thought someone might not treat it with reverence or, worse, “forget” to return it to me is enough of a deterrent. Yet we’re supposed to believe that Catherine not only freely loaned this book out but cannot remember to whom to gave the book. Remember, we’re talking about one of five copies in North America. No self-respecting collector would let anyone touch this book unsupervised. I understand why the plot has to be this way but, to me, it makes absolutely no sense.
If you’re prepared to look past the problems, Cloudland is a fascinating study of an abused woman struggling to deal with a new situation that seems to be forcing her to look with suspicion at the people in her local community. Having had trust issues in the past, the evolving situation becomes increasingly challenging. On balance, I’m prepared to say the combination of a superior prose style and a reasonable murder investigation makes for a very good outcome. Had Joseph Olshan come up with a plot that offered a slightly better tie between the murder(s) and the intended victim(s), we would have been looking at another award winner.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.