In a remote corner of Vermont, the spring snowmelt reveals something besides the year’s first snowdrops and crocuses: the corpse of a woman, propped against a tree , a Seventh-Day Adventist pamphlet stuffed in her pocket. The body is that of Angela Parker, the local phlebotomist, who’s been missing for months — and Angela is not the first woman to be found murdered in this remote corner of the country. Nor will she be the last.
So begins Joseph Olshan’s “Cloudland,” which introduces Catherine Winslow, an oddly diffident protagonist. Catherine is a former investigative reporter who’s now a syndicated household-hints guru. In most suspense novels, a thawing corpse could do worse than to turn up in the yard of an investigative reporter, but Catherine seems content to cede the mystery to an out-of-town detective, Marco Prozzo, as well as her neighbor on Cloudland Road, forensic psychiatrist Anthony Waite.
Catherine, in fact, seems only mildly interested about the corpse in her yard until she learns that Angela seems to have been the victim of a serial killer whose signatures are religious pamphlets and a tree. It turns out these are similar to plot points in Wilkie Collins’s last book, “The Widower’s Branch,” an unfinished manuscript with an outlined ending. And Catherine, conveniently, happens to have one of the few copies in existence.
This would be the point in your average novel where Catherine and her investigator friends pore through the Collins manuscript, tweezing out clues — but, no. No one even seems to read the book again, and it’s here that Olshan, a fine novelist (“Clara’s Heart”) trying his hand at genre fiction, loses the plot. Even after another woman turns up dead, Catherine seems more concerned with her relationship with her semi-estranged daughter, Breck, as well as with the mysterious reappearance of Matthew Blake, a former suitor who once strangled her then fled to Thailand . . . or did he? Was he in the area when the murders were committed, and had he read Catherine’s rare book?
Smitten people do irrational things, of course, but Catherine seems content, sensible and hardly lonely, so why she might even consider allowing an abusive man back into her life is a mystery. It’s just one area where Olshan’s peculiar protagonist feels inauthentic. She’s a former New York Times investigative reporter who doesn’t have the itch to dig for her own answers when a body is found propped up on her property, and she’s a household-hints columnist who’s never heard of using baking soda and vinegar to clean a stinky, sluggish sink. Even when one character points out the obvious — that Catherine, a woman living alone in the country, is serial-killer bait — she shows no reaction. Olshan’s attempts to flesh out subsidiary characters feel more like dawdles and diversions than plot development. Much is made of Breck’s long history with anorexia and Waite’s troubles with his marriage; both subplots are suspense killers.
Perhaps most puzzling of all, at least to any book lover: Catherine is a bibliophile who owns an exceedingly rare item by a major 19th-century British author, a manuscript so obscure that it doesn’t show up in many biographies of the writer, a book that can be found in the collections of only four universities in America, and yet she’s loaned it out so frequently that she can’t remember who’s borrowed it.
Olshan blows all the rules of fair play by introducing a character vital to the mystery’s solution in the final pages, but by then the average reader will be creeped out by something else entirely: a story about a woman contemplating the renewal of a relationship with a man who strangled her, even though she’s not sure he isn’t a serial killer. “You love somebody who put his hands around your neck with the worst of intentions?” Breck asks her mother incredulously, to which Catherine can only reply, “He stopped.” It’s the capper on a lot of things that don’t make much sense on Cloudland Road.
Allman is a freelance writer and editor who lives in New Orleans.
By Joseph Olshan
Minotaur. 291 pp. $24.99