Book Review: Jane Darrowfield and the Madwoman Next Door by Barbara Ross
By Doreen SheridanJanuary 18, 2022
With this latest cozy novel, Barbara Ross cements her status as my favorite living mystery writer. In less than three hundred pages, she delivers yet another taut, intelligent tale full of empathy and sensitivity, written with both economy and verve. Her style hearkens back to the Golden Age detective novels that presented real intellectual puzzles without extraneous clutter. While there’s certainly still a lot of the characterization modern readers expect from their cozies, the plot takes center stage, pulling us along on an enthralling case of a woman who fears for her sanity before abruptly disappearing.
The woman in question is our titular “madwoman,” Megan Larsen. A high-powered attorney on the partner track, she bought the house next door to retiree Jane Darrowfield several months before our story begins. The two women are friendly enough, but it’s still a surprise to Jane when Megan knocks on her door one day, wanting to hire her services as a professional busybody.
For the past few months, Megan has been having strange experiences that are making her question her sanity. While her doctor claims there’s nothing physically wrong with her, Megan is worried that her mental health is in serious decline, and wants Jane to find out whether there’s a reasonable explanation for everything that’s happening to her. Jane accepts the case on the condition that Megan seeks the help of a qualified physician should it all indeed be in her head. Megan readily accepts.
As Jane investigates, she discovers that a malevolent external influence is indeed active in Megan’s life. Before she can figure out exactly who or why, however, Megan disappears, apparently the victim of foul play. Jane isn’t the only person stricken by this, as many of their neighbors, including members of Jane’s bridge club, worry that the younger woman’s disappearance isn’t an isolated event:
“I know you won’t talk about the specifics of a case, but you owe Phyllis and me this. Are we safe in our own homes? We both live in sight of Megan’s house, and Phyllis lives alone.”
“I think so,” Jane answered. “I didn’t see Megan’s disappearance coming, so I hesitate to say one hundred percent. But I believe what happened to Megan, whatever it was, was specific to Megan.”
“Meaning?” Phyllis pressed.
“Either Megan was targeted, which seems most likely, or Megan took herself off, which seems less likely every day, but we can’t dismiss it entirely. It’s the better scenario for Megan, so I can’t quite give it up.”
This preference for wanting what’s best for everyone over wanting to be right is the heroic motive that drives Jane to aid the local police, chasing down leads herself instead of straining their resources on her perhaps fanciful notions. While she shares all her information with her friend, lead Detective Alvarez, she also knows he has better things to do than contact a number of Megan’s estranged relatives in order to break the news of the disappearance, a task she takes on for herself once it becomes clear that Megan’s father won’t. And while it may be her own history that propels her to reach out and to tirelessly keep up the search for her missing neighbor, there’s no denying the good intentions or the good works she’s doing as she puzzles through this mystery.
While Jane generally errs on the side of caution while snooping, her boyfriend Harry can’t help worrying just a little, and expresses his concerns in perhaps the most moving way I’ve ever read in a cozy novel:
“I heard about the home search from your friends.” Harry’s mouth was a thin line under this thick moustache. “Look, I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’m not going to tell you how to do your job.” He cleared his throat and lowered his voice. “But I am going to tell you that if something happened to you, I don’t know how I would survive it. We’re at an age where every moment is precious, and every moment is increasingly precarious. I could handle it if you got sick. I’ve lived through that before. But if you were killed or severely injured in some foolish and avoidable situation, I don’t know what I would do. I love you.”
I teared up more than once reading this excellent book, as Jane runs a gamut of emotions in the course of trying to help her neighbor. Jane Darrowfield and the Madwoman Next Door packs so much into its highly readable pages, marrying a terrific mystery with an empathy and wit most other writers can only dream of achieving. This was one of my best mystery reads of the year, and one of my favorite novels of 2021.