Cloudland wants to blend the slow-building character development and beautiful writing of literary fiction with the quirky characters and rogues’ gallery of a Patricia Cornwall novel. For the most part, it fails, but the mixture of elements is just odd enough to be fascinating.
Author Joseph Olshan takes as his basis the unsolved Connecticut River Valley murders of the late ’70s and early ’80s, though he moves them to the modern era. The victims are all women, abducted from out-of-the-way locations and strangled and stabbed, with lengthy intervals between murders. Only one managed to escape the killer. The novel opens with protagonist Catherine Winslow finding the body of the latest victim, Angela Parker, a young mother who lives in the area. The corpse is propped up in an orchard, where the killer left it to be buried in drifting snow.
For the most part, Olshan is just adapting reality here. The novel struggles when he attempts to bring the rough events of the real-life killings into his fictional universe. Catherine is a maddening protagonist. When she’s dealing with the aftermath of a shattered relationship with a man 15 years younger than herself, or with a distant daughter who seems to resent her, Olshan writes her more confidently, secure in the trappings of more traditional literary-fiction devices. When he has to have her attempt to solve the mystery from the comfort of her own living room, or weighs her down with affectations like a 250-pound pet pig or a popular syndicated household-hints column, she feels too much like a collection of quirks, designed to drive many books in a series to follow Cloudland.
Catherine is also surprisingly egotistical. She’s incapable of seeing far beyond herself and her immediate concerns, and in the novel’s last lines, she implicates herself for the murders for no real reason. If Olshan wanted to play up how people tend to make everything—even violent crimes—all about themselves, he’s chosen an odd vehicle, as readers are never invited to be anything less than sympathetic to the damaged Catherine.
The plotting is also haphazard. The final solution to the mystery relies on Olshan producing a bunch of clues out of nowhere, and lots of time is spent with potential suspects who aren’t particularly interesting, outside of being suspects. Olshan drops in flashbacks to Catherine’s struggles with her daughter or her former lover, but while they’re often interesting, they also stop the narrative dead in its tracks. It’s like he’s clumsily grafted together a traditional novel about a woman looking at her 40s and trying to reassemble the wreckage of her life, and a basic, clichéd murder mystery.
Still, the novel has its pleasures, if the weirdness of the tone can be overlooked. Olshan’s writing is frequently stunning, particularly when he’s describing the landscape of the book’s Vermont setting, and he’s crafted at least a handful of interesting small-town types for Catherine to bounce off of. It’s just a pity that the book constantly seems uncertain of what it wants to be, too timid to really go all-out with the genre trappings, but too tied to the mystery to really delve into these people as people. It wants to be about the vagaries of grief, but also about a whip-smart amateur gumshoe with a fearsome porcine companion, and the Venn-diagram intersection between the two stories is all but nonexistent.