Book Review: Jane Darrowfield, Professional Busybody by Barbara Ross
By Doreen SheridanJuly 3, 2020
Let’s just lay it out here: this is one of the best cozy mysteries I’ve ever read. Not only was Jane Darrowfield, Professional Busybody a smart and suspenseful mystery, it was a funny and moving novel as well. Barbara Ross has long been my favorite culinary cozy author with her terrific Maine Clambake series, but this debut in her Jane Darrowfield series is without a doubt the best thing she’s written to date, and that’s high praise given the excellent quality of her previous novels.
This book opens with recently retired Jane Darrowfield at a bit of a loose end. Divorced, with her only son living on the other side of the country from her Massachusetts home, she fills her days with a bit of reading, a bit of gardening, and bridge with her three closest friends. She’s also acquired a reputation for being a bit of a fixer, in perhaps the most helpfully suburban way possible:
In Jane’s opinion, many people sadly lacked the skill to have difficult conversations with acquaintances and neighbors. Given a noisy house party or a car parked blocking a driveway, people stewed in silence—or worse, called the police—when a simple knock on the door and a polite request would have done the job. It was into this breach that Jane had leapt again and again. Now she was being offered the chance to be paid for her efforts. Why wouldn’t she take it?
The person offering is Paul Peavey, the beleaguered executive director of Walden Spring, a rather tony retirement community. Two of his residents are at loggerheads, with each of their cliques taking sides and everyone else getting caught in the crossfire. As a result, tensions are high and condo sales have plummeted. This obviously isn’t something one can call the cops in on, and counseling hasn’t helped much either, so Paul is willing to pay Jane a ridiculous amount of money to go undercover in the community and bring an end to this nonsense.
Jane is fairly certain that the combination of analytical and people skills she honed during years of navigating corporate America will help her figure out how to get to the root of the problem and speak reasonably to all involved. However, only half a day of pretending to be a prospective resident staying in a Walden Spring guest suite enlightens her as to the real nature of the problem here:
Jane looked around the dining hall and suddenly was overwhelmed by a feeling of déjà vu. The golf jocks sitting with the expensively dressed popular girls. The leather-jacketed bad boys with the greased-back hair. The tables full of couples. The lonely people sitting by themselves, staring at their trays. The dancers and the artists in the corner, Jane sitting among them. She had thought her corporate experience was what she brought to this assignment. But now it was obvious. Walden Spring was high school.
The guise of being a prospective resident allows her to ask nosier questions than she might ordinarily get away with, and soon she has recommendations for what Paul ought to do with the two ringleaders, preppy Bill Finnerty and greaser Mike Witkowski, in order to calm the whole place down. But the very next morning dawns to find Bill bludgeoned to death on the golf links attached to the property, and Jane soon finds herself involved in solving a greater and more deadly mystery than regressively adolescent hijinks among a crowd certainly old enough to know better.
I can’t gush enough over how perfectly balanced this book was, with its intelligent mystery, keen insight into contemporary life, and the sense of wry humor that made it all an utter delight to read. While I loved all Jane’s friends, I absolutely adored her relationship with prospective beau Harry and how that grew through the book even as her confidence as a retiree did. Equal parts cozy mystery and contemporary fiction, this is a paragon of both genres, and I loved reading every minute of it.