- Joseph Olshan
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Lawrence De Maria
- April 12, 2012
Set in rural Vermont this murder mystery supplies the requisite body plus a domesticated pig and helpful household hints.
Reviewed by Lawrence De Maria
It’s hard to dislike a novel in which a 250-pound domesticated pig named Henrietta thwarts a killer.
Hard, but not impossible.
Such is the case with Cloudland, by Joseph Olshan.
Olshan, who has a reputation for writing beautifully about gay love (with a Lambda Award under his belt to prove it), is unconvincing writing in the first person as Catherine Winslow, a Vermont woman recovering from a love affair with a younger man who was one of her students.
Winslow, formerly a “major news reporter,” is now a “household hints” columnist reduced to developing drain-cleaning concoctions and advising women how to make Moroccan tagines with lemons marinated in earthenware jugs. One hopes her readers know the difference, although maybe Olshan is developing a plot for a future murder mystery.
The title of the book is derived from the meandering Cloudland Road, on which Catherine Winslow lives and where she finds a long-dead body under an apple tree. From that promising and extremely well-written beginning, the novel itself meanders. There are so many characters in Cloudland that the reader can be forgiven for assuming that Vermont is seriously underreporting the population of its rural counties and should petition for more representation in Washington. The suspects alone rate their own Congressional district.
The dead body, conveniently preserved in a snow bank, is the presumed victim of a serial killer and Catherine is almost immediately involved in hunt for the murderer. As if that isn’t enough to jar a household-hints columnist’s preserves, in her spare time Catherine teaches literature to a group of killers in a local prison.
And her former, distraught lover reenters her life, anxious to rekindle the affair that ended her adjunct teaching career in disgrace.
And a Wilkie Collins novel missing from her library may be tied to the murders.
And her neighbor, a forensic scientist, has his own agenda.
And a police detective may not be all that he seems.
And … well, you get the picture.
Olshan can be a descriptive, sensitive writer. His past novels include Clara’s Heart, which was subsequently made into a movie starring Whoopie Goldberg. There are flashes of his talent in Cloudland but not enough of them. Billed as a “crime novel” based on a series of unsolved New England murders, Cloudland is more a love letter to Vermont, with the occasional dead body and lunatic neighbor thrown in to relieve the monotony and home remedies.
Let’s give the final word to the porker, Henrietta.
Lawrence De Maria was a senior editor and writer at the New York Times and Forbes. His many front-page articles led the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-nominated coverage of the 1987 stock market crash. De Maria lives in Naples, Fla., where he writes novels and short stories, is a film and book critic, and lectures on financial journalism. His new novel, Sound of Blood, is available through his website, www.lawrencedemaria.com