Addison County police investigations inspire novel

MIDDLEBURY — Acclaimed Vermont author Joseph Olshan often looks to the news headlines as inspiration for his suspenseful novels; his 10th book, “Black Diamond Fall,” is no exception.
And Olshan’s Addison County readers will immediately recognize two of the real-life events that help build the foundation of “Black Diamond Fall”: the disappearance and tragic death of Middlebury College freshman Nick Garza in 2008, and the vandalism spree at the Robert Frost Farmhouse in Ripton in December 2007.
Olshan (pictured, right), a Barnard resident and the executive editor of Delphinium Books, will be speaking about his newest book at the Vermont Book Shop on Tuesday, Sept. 18, from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
He spoke of his creative process — and his use of true events — during a recent phone interview with the Independent.
“Often, people who write fiction do this — especially with literary suspense or mystery,” Olshan said. “They are often real events that people take and they create worlds in their books that actually happened. I think many readers are actually drawn to the fact that it’s based on a real story.”
The story includes a character named Luc Flanders, who disappears after playing a game of pond hockey with his college roommates in the fictional town of Carleton, Vermont. Carleton police become divided in their assessment of what happened to him; some believe Flanders chose to go “off the grid,” but others — including detectives Nick Jenkins and Helen Kennedy — suspect foul play. As the search for Flanders intensifies, the detectives turn their gaze to Sam Solomon, an older man with whom Flanders had been having a secret relationship. Solomon can’t prove his whereabouts during the hours when Flanders disappeared, according to a summary of the book.
And when the Robert Frost house is vandalized, the detectives in “Black Diamond Fall” discover there might be a link between the events.
Both the Garza and Frost cases made national news.
It was in Feb. 5, 2008, that Nick Garza was last seen walking across the quiet campus, ostensibly headed to his dorm room. But he tragically veered off course and onto a path that would mystify searchers for almost four months. Authorities ultimately found Garza’s remains in the Otter Creek and ruled out foul play in his death.
A little more than a month earlier, on Dec. 28, 2007, more than two-dozen youths caused a combined total of $10,600 in damage to the former home of Robert Frost in Ripton, during an underage drinking party in the historic structure. Organizers of the party avoided jail in a plea deal that required them to pay $3,500 in restitution, perform 100 hours of community service, serve two years of probation and take a class to learn about Frost’s renowned works and iconic status as an American poet.
Both incidents made an impression on Olshan, a longtime Vermont resident. He said he received some special insight into the Garza case from a friend whose psychic services were enlisted during the search for the young man.
“They were a convenient vehicle for me, in that I could relate to them both emotionally,” Olshan recalled. “My way in was my friend, the psychic’s overwhelming reaction to the disappearance of this kid, the mystery that with her psychic abilities she was trying to solve.”
Incorporating the same themes into “Black Diamond Fall” has helped give the story greater approachability and realism for readers, according to Olshan.
“The public’s taste now is for things that have actually happened,” he said. “That’s why memoirs are very popular and why we see a lot of reality TV shows. People really want the real story. They don’t necessarily want invention, and that’s why fewer novels are being read now, in favor of stories that actually happened and are recounted as they happened.”
But the novelist ultimately decided against naming Addison County’s shire town as the setting for his story. A friend and Middlebury native advised him against it, saying it might spur some unintended controversy.
“I changed the (town’s) name (to Carleton) pretty late in the game,” Olshan said. “I really didn’t want to put a focus on the town, in case I got something wrong. I also didn’t want to run the risk of stirring up trouble.”
That said, area readers will recognize the backdrop as being the Middlebury and Burlington areas. Olshan is familiar with both.
“I feel it’s almost impossible to write about a place unless you’ve lived there and experienced it,” Olshan said. “For me, the fiction that resonates is the fiction written by people who have lived it, seen the cities and the land they are writing about. I don’t think there’s anything that can compete with that.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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