Calling Sharon Nelson trashy would be an insult to landfills everywhere.
Gregg Olsen starts Confessions of an American Black Widow as a standard police procedural: law enforcement is called to the scene of a fire at a fireman's house. Then they stumble across a body with an "unexploded head." You might think, as I did, that this was a good thing. It's not. It immediately alerts the police is that is in fact a murder. The action quickly turns to the past and the widow of the victim, the awesomely trampy Sharon Nelson.
Former preacher's wife, former good girl and current town pump Sharon is like Bette Davis's camp classic Rosa Moline (from Beyond the Forest) brought to life. Whether seducing every man in the zip code or setting up her step-daughter to be expelled from boarding school or just strutting around town in painted-on short-shorts, Sharon is a trip. Unfortunately, she's a trip to the morgue for two of her husbands.
It seems a simple story: girl raised by ultra-religious parents marries minister and then rebels against the strictures in her life. What makes Sharon Lynn Fuller Nelson (Adams) Harrelson's story more complex isn't just the murders, it's her relentlessness in acquiring a trailer-park version of the finer things in life. These include a Jeep, hot rollers, and romantic lunches at Pizza Hut. That's one of the first things that struck me in this story - for someone willing to resort to murder to get what they want Sharon set her sights a little low. But then Sharon doesn't come across as a deep or expansive thinker, she's more like a child distracted by a red helium balloon. If the town eye doctor looks like a better catch than her minister husband, Sharon goes after him. Then she goes after the eye doctor's slightly better off good friend the rancher. You get the picture. Then Sharon plum loses her mind over ... a "mountain man", which I can only assume is Sharon's personal code for "complete loser than I'm inexplicably attracted to." No job, living in a trailer, and in need of Viagra before it was invented, this is the man of Sharon's dreams.
In lesser hands, this would be a dreary tale. Gregg Olsen makes it a cross between a classic true crime investigation and, well, a camp classic. And bless him for it. If you're going to tell the story about a woman who thinks nothing of having the neighbors walk in on her having sex on the kitchen floor with a man other than her husband it helps to have a sense of humor, which Olsen has. He's hilariously droll at times, letting "mountain man" Gary Adams confide his love for Sharon's special sauce (no, he's not talking about McDonald's). Other times Olsen is a master at the throwaway bitchy remark like having Sharon wonder "Hadn't she pleased him in bed? In the woods? By the lake?"
Olsen does a fine job of presenting Sharon's story and the story of her numerous victims, he doesn't skimp on showing the human toll of her selfishness. He lets the people of the small towns in Colorado where Sharon lived act as a Greek chorus with more than a few sage remarks on human nature coming from ordinary working folks. And then there's Sharon. Telling strangers that she sun bathes in the nude or greeting dinner guests by letting them know what great sex she and her husband had the night before. And, bizarrely, using the local Pizza Hut for pivotal moments in her life. Apparently nothing goes with adultery or confessions to murder quite like a deep dish pizza.
This book is good solid true crime and its just plain fun. This is my first Gregg Olsen book but it definitely won't be my last.