‘Cloudland” is both the evocative title of Joseph Olshan’s new novel and the remote, sparsely populated area of rural Vermont where it is set. Against the backdrop of a Vermont spring, the roads “clotted” with mud and ponds “caved in with a bellow,” a missing nurse turns up sitting under an apple tree in a pink parka in the late March sun looking for all the world as if she’s “tanning in a crater of melting snow.” It turns out she was “stabbed and dumped” there before a blizzard months earlier.
Catherine Winslow, a local resident and syndicated food columnist, discovers the body on her daily ramble up the road from her house. In the victim’s pocket police find Seventh Day Adventist pamphlets, a clue that she’s the victim of a serial killer. Somehow Catherine, formerly a New York Times investigative journalist and English teacher who shares her home with a pot-bellied pig, gets drawn into the investigation. Catherine is also an expert on Wilkie Collins and one of his rarest volumes becomes a clue. In the background hovers Catherine’s estrangement from her daughter and a disastrous affair with a much younger man who was once her student.
The intricate whodunnit has faint echoes of Collins with Catherine in the role of his “Woman In White,” wandering desolate hills, but not trying nearly hard enough to escape her past. Diffident and indecisive, Catherine repeatedly asks herself how she can consider reconnecting with the man who nearly killed her. The reader wonders, too.
In Kieran Shields’s debut novel “The Truth of All Things” a trio of sleuths investigate a series of horrific murders in 1890s Portland, Maine. In the lead is Perceval Grey, a cerebral, enigmatic fellow of Abenaki Indian ancestry, whose careful observation of a crime scene and unbiased logic rival Sherlock Holmes’s. “Coincidences are only the observations of those too lazy to puzzle out the connections and consequences hidden from casual view,” he muses midway through the investigation. Grey’s Watson is Deputy Marshal Archie Lean, overmatched in one of his first official investigations — the ritualized murder of a prostitute. The third sleuth is Helen Prescott, a sensible librarian, historian, and researcher. She’s much more Hermione Granger than Mrs. Hudson. Early on she realizes that the murderer is obsessed by the Salem witch trials and on his own witch hunt 200 years later.
This is a book that will appeal to readers who relish the intricacies of a Sherlockian plot with multiple suspects and sleuths who charge up blind alley after blind alley. Pages of detail supposedly from Salem witch-trial transcripts bog down the narrative. Strong characters and convincing historical detail make the novel work despite an increasingly labored story line that builds from plot twist to plot twist, finally reaching a complicated solution with far too many moving parts.
Susan Elia MacNeal’s historical “Mr. Churchill’s Secretary” is set in 1940. England is on the brink of war, besieged by the Luftwaffe from without and the IRA from within. The novel opens with a typist for the newly anointed prime minister gratefully accepting a lift home from a young, smartly dressed young woman. On her own doorstep, she is stabbed by the woman’s masked accomplice.
A replacement typist is apparently so hard to find and so urgently needed that one of Churchill’s private secretaries persuades his friend Maggie Hope to apply for the open position. Maggie is at first reluctant, de rigueur in this kind of classic setup. When she gets the job, she’s a consummate fish out of water with male staff and a battle axe of a senior secretary who look down their noses at her. Maggie keeps telling herself to remember that she isn’t really “a secretary but a Wellesley graduate, summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, fluent in German and French, about to start working toward a doctoral degree in mathematics from M.I.T.” It turns out she has even more to offer, an inherited talent that even she doesn’t realize.
Maggie, a cerebral redhead, makes a smart plucky heroine. A creature of the Roaring Twenties, she hangs out with chums, dancing and drinking and laughing and waiting for bombs to start dropping. But when violence strikes she never seems genuinely affected. MacNeal may write, “The idea that this kind of violence and horror existed shook Maggie to her core,” but in context those feel like words the author put in her character’s head.
By Joseph Olshan
Minotaur, 304 pp., $24.99
THE TRUTH OF ALL THINGS
By Kieran Shields
Crown, 416 pp., $25
MR. CHURCHILL’S SECRETARY
By Susan Elia MacNeal
Bantam, 384 pp., paperback, $15