Fresh Meat: Cloudland by Joseph Olshan

Cloudland by Joseph OlshanCloudland by Joseph Olshan is a literary thriller (available April 10, 2012).

When a walk during the spring thaw reveals a frozen body, remote Cloudland becomes the focus of a murder investigation with Catherine Winslow in the middle of it. A former investigative journalist, Catherine is now a recluse who writes a syndicated column with recipes, household hints, and folk remedies. Her simple life becomes complicated when she realizes the body of the young woman resting against a tree in her field is a missing nurse suspected to be a serial killer’s victim.

Catherine’s neighbors soon become suspects in the case and she feels guilty because the murderer brought his taint to her neighborhood. Her investigative instincts kick in when her neighbor, a forensic psychiatrist who has been hired as a consultant, asks her to be a sounding board for his findings. While all this is going on, she’s trying to reconnect with her estranged daughter whose battle with anorexia almost killed them both, and trying to avoid a former student who was her much-younger lover and the reason she lost her job at a nearby college.

This is a beautifully written, well-crafted novel. I couldn’t believe I’d reached the last page and I desperately wanted to see what happened in Catherine’s life once the murder was solved. This is both a literate and suspenseful book that gives you all kinds of clues and answers but still surprises in the end.

I loved the rather rough relationship Catherine had with her daughter. She desperately wanted to be closer to the younger woman but didn’t know what kind of bridge was needed to cross the great divide between them. The emotional toll of the daughter’s eating disorder continued the rift that developed when Catherine couldn’t forgive her ex-husband for his affair. The guilt becomes another being in their relationship.

Joseph Olshan unfolded the affair with a younger man in an interesting way. He presented details slowly and brought along all the baggage that a failed relationship never loses. Add to that details that make Catherine’s young man an obvious suspect, and it plays very well in a mystery. Of course, Catherine’s head is spinning near the end as she’s trying to believe none of the people she loves—her neighbors or her former lover—could be cold enough to do what was done to the young women who were murdered.

Olshan’s prose is eloquent in its simplicity:

Cloudland Road is flanked on either side by tall oaks that in the summer cast a lovely drape of cooling shade. Wide-open meadows and pastures gently undulate as they stretch far back to forest, the land itself slowly rising to an elevation of 1,900 feet and opening to a view of the Green Mountains that to the north end up at Camel’s Hump, and in the blue, hazy southern distance are framed by Mount Ascutney. Growing up, I’d spent summers and holidays in Vermont, and when I got married, my husband and I bought my 1800s Cape on Cloudland and continued commuting from New York City until we got divorced. Within a year of our split he developed an aggressive form of throat cancer and died, and I then began living here full time with my daughter.

That was eight years ago (when Breck was fourteen) and Paul and his adopted son, Wade, were the only other year-round residents.

Anthony, his wife, and their two daughters arrived a few years later.

Paul and I bought our parcels—mine fifty acres, his twenty—before property values skyrocketed. Anthony inherited approximately forty from his American grandmother. The rest of the pristine land is owned by the biotech CEO out of Boston who spends little time in his picturesque Architectural Digest farmhouse but who has nevertheless stockpiled a thousand acres, installed Scottish Highland cattle, and built Cape-style guesthouses for his friends and caretakers along the road and on several pinnacles of carefully cleared hillside. He’d had one of the ponds dredged in a perfect hourglass shape to please his reputedly implacable wife. My favorite house of his that he built and rarely uses is graced with a widow’s walk that gives a commanding yet lonely vantage point of the land with its swales and distant woods.

Cloudland has always been largely uninhabited. When you drive along the road itself, it’s a rare thing when another car passes in the opposite direction—in short, a perfect location to excavate layers of deep snow and trundle a body.

Spring comes relatively late to northern New England: early April often feels like dead of winter. Leaves generally don’t even bud for another six weeks; you never see croci until at least the third week. That day I set out into a landscape that was still largely snowbound. At the fringe of a sloping pasture stood a copse of sumacs whose vermilion leaves of the previous autumn still clung to the branches and looked like drops of blood holding fast to white fabric. I was passing the orchard for the first time since finding the body and saw that it was cordoned off, yellow police tape spooled from tree to tree, sometimes angling sharply to circumscribe its boundary. In places where the tape had been tied off, extra pieces hung like dead appendages fluttering in the wind. I could see pockmarks where the snow had been scooped up for lab sampling—all in all, an eerie scene like something out of a TV police drama. This was the sort of disturbance I thought I was moving away from when I finally left New York City.

I think he captures not only the beauty of this remote space in Vermont but Catherine’s love for its character and strength. It’s obvious these neighbors have created their own little closed-off world out there and they don’t know what to do with this invasion of privacy.

This is one of those books that you’ll read and relish and then read it again to enjoy what you missed.

Leigh Neely is a former newspaper and magazine editor. She currently does freelance work, blogs at, and recently wrote the short story, “A Vampire in Brooklyn,” which is in the anthology,  Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices. She is currently working on paranormal novels with a partner under the pseudonym of Neely Powell.

Read all posts by Leigh Neely for Criminal Element.

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