"Cloudland" by Joseph Olshan
Minotaur Books ($24.99)
By Oline H. Cogdill
Sun Sentinel (MCT)
The effect of violence on small communities continues to be one of the most provocative themes for mystery fiction. Joseph Olshan expands that plot device for an in-depth character study of a woman who is emotionally stagnant because of her inability to forgive those she loves.
Olshan, best known for his non-genre fiction such as "The Conversation" and "Clara's Heart," makes a bold and quite effective foray into crime fiction in "Cloudland." Using the hunt for a serial killer as his foundation, Olshan's sturdy plot builds on his believable characters. Olshan's greatest risk — and his most persuasive — is creating a lead character who is unlikable yet also intriguing enough to make readers want to delve into "Cloudland."
While she calls a small Vermont town home, Catherine Winslow's community is even more insular — the isolated Cloudland Road where only three families live. Catherine is pulled into the search for a serial killer after she finds the frozen body of a missing nurse during a walk in an orchard near her house. Catherine becomes the sounding board for her neighbor Anthony Waite, a forensic psychiatrist assisting the police in the investigation of the killer who has been striking in the upper valley region of Vermont and New Hampshire. "Cloudland" makes striking parallels between the methodical police investigation and the chaos that rules in the neighbors' homes.
Anthony's marriage is in tatters and their other neighbor has an unusual living arrangement. But it's Catherine whose prickly personality dominates the intriguing "Cloudland."
A former investigative reporter and college professor, Catherine makes a good salary writing a syndicated household tips column. Catherine's own home is quickly corroding, which she can't seem to recognize. Too often, she wants to "gather the gloom" around her. Catherine is stymied by her failure to love unconditionally, to accept flaws in others. It cost her a marriage and is alienating her grown daughter. Yet, Catherine is unable to forget an affair with a student that had violent undertones — "the sort of dark, disturbing love that cuts deeper than anything and in so doing becomes its own justification."
Although Catherine turns her back on people, Olshan's empathetic shaping of this character makes her hard to forget. And the author also often lightens the tone of "Cloudland" with quite a few household tips that also move along the plot.
(c)2012 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
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