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by Jane Isenberg

Avon Books, October 2001
ISBN: 0-38-081886-8

Reviewed by Karen Meek

MIDLIFE CAN BE MURDER is the fourth title in the Bel Barrett series. Bel is a fifty-something English professor in a community college in Jersey City. One night her old room-mate from college, Sandi, calls her up to say she's left her partner and job in California and has moved to New York and can they meet for lunch. Bel agrees and with the aid of plenty of wine, Sandi talks Bel into discovering their Jewish roots by studying for their adult bat mitzvahs.

When Bel receives the study programme, she is horrified by the amount of work it entails for as well as working full time she is working on her dissertation for a doctorate. At the first study session she meets the rabbi and the rest of the students, one of whom, Ashley, Bel taught a few years ago. Bel had declined to write a letter of recommendation for Ashley as she had an unproven suspicion that Ashley had cheated on her work. Ashley however appears not to hold a grudge and when her close friend and work partner Chris has a fatal accident, Bel is the person she turns to for comfort.

Apparently Chris had been working undercover at a rival dot com company and Ashley believes he was killed because they found out he was a spy. When she's assigned to take over the role Chris was doing she becomes anxious for her own safety. She asks Bel to help her gather proof that Chris was murdered and the manner in which she asks makes it clear she hadn't forgotten her refused letter.

As part of the bat mitzvah training involves undertaking a mitzvah or good deed Bel agrees. However she doesn't go it alone, roping in her colleagues Betty and Illuminada. Together they form a mature Charlie's Angels to find out the truth.

Once the initial scene setting is over, MIDLIFE CAN BE MURDER turns up a gear and becomes a compulsive read. The three main characters are very different, very real and a lot of fun. The plot is well thought out and gives an insight into the hi-tech, high-salary world of e-commerce. The information on Judaism is cleverly woven into the story, even offering a pointer to the solution. Bel has a good support network of family and friends, and in a nice touch, emails from some of them begin each chapter.

An unusual thing about this series is that the protagonist isn't a physical superwoman, for one thing she gets tired but the main hook is about how she suffers and copes with the effects of the menopause. Depending on your age and gender you may find this information enlightening, worrying or reassuring.

This is my first Bel Barrett book but there are tantalising references to earlier cases which will make me seek out Bel, Betty and Illuminada again.

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