Monday, May 21, 2012

Slow, Moody, Penetrating: The Spring Mystery by Joseph Olshan, CLOUDLAND

Looking at a list of Joseph Olshan's novels and their publishers, it's clear this Cambridge, Mass., author has long been associated with literary fiction -- the kind that slowly eats its way into you, through the tenaciousness of ordinary people grappling with extraordinary stresses. Here are the titles that preceded this spring's publication of CLOUDLAND:
  • The Conversion (St. Martin's Press, 2008)
  • In Clara's Hands (Bloomsbury, 2003)
  • Vanitas (Simon & Schuster, 1998)
  • Nightswimmer (Simon & Schuster, 1994)
  • The Sound of Heaven (Bloomsbury, 1992)
  • The Waterline (Doubleday, 1989)
  • A Warmer Season (Bloomsbury/McGraw-Hill, co-pub, 1987)
  • Clara's Heart (Arbor House, 1985)
At first glance, that's the genre for CLOUDLAND, too, with its epigraph in French that translates as "The first love is the only love" (we know that's not true), and its opening chapter that's rich in description of the grainy snow of late March. But it is in fact a corpse that's discovered in this opening -- the corpse of Angela Parker -- and our protagonist, journalist Catherine Winslow, may be writing household hints these days, but she was once a major news reporter with crime knowledge of her own.

I sank into the book with something of the same discomfort as tramping in a Vermont early spring, one moment in wet, icy snow, the next in sticky mud or a cow pie. Catherine's life now isn't much different from what she once described as she waited for her daughter's precarious mental health to perhaps turn toward something better: "I lived from day to day in a stupor of anxiety, hardly eating anything myself, waiting for bulletins that were never very promising ... What they didn't tell me, couldn't tell me, wouldn't dare to tell me was, 'She wants to kill herself.'"

Nor is she the most reliable detective. She admits to us, in this first-person narrative, that the absence of a book from its familiar spot on her shelf confuses her. "I began to worry that I'd somehow lent it out and completely forgotten to whom. Perhaps my memory wasn't so good after all."

Yet these twinges of doubt are equally clues to what's gone wrong on the mountain ridge known as "Cloudland," where Catherine and her sparse neighbors barely speak, yet attempt to still be neighborly somehow. Drawing from some of Vermont's unsolved and unfinished murder cases, Olshan crafts a haunted -- and haunting -- progression from unease to risk to deadly danger.

This is a a book that requires readerly attentiveness and patience. But the rewards are powerful and unforgettable. CLOUDLAND will last on the shelf.

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