Wendy Sand Eckel’s Murder at Barclay Meadow is the tale of Rosalie Hart, a woman who tries to rekindle her relationship with her husband after finally emptying their nest only to discover he’s taken a mistress. Unable to sleep in the bed where he betrayed her, Rosalie decamps to a farm she inherited on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She plans to lick her wounds in private while pondering her future, but instead becomes fixated on Megan Johnston, a young college student whose body washes up on her property. The police rule the death an accident, but Rosalie remains unconvinced and launches an inquiry of her own.
Rosalie isn’t your typical traditional mystery heroine. At 45, she’s older than we’ve come to expect from the genre, but at the same time, the shelter of a long marriage has left her somewhat prudish and naive. Her profession doesn’t define her; in fact, she hasn’t held a job in quite some time. Rather than choosing a plucky sidekick or a potential love interest to help her crack the case, she assembles a Scooby Gang comprising the members of her memoir-writing class—none of whom are exactly cozy-novel archetypes themselves. Her motivation to concern herself with Megan’s murder is unique, as well. Rosalie tells herself she’s seeking justice for a victim who reminds her of her daughter, but while that’s true, she’s mostly just desperate for the diversion. When we meet her, she’s in pain and adrift, fumbling her way through the dissolution of her marriage and grieving the end of the life she once led. Her investigation lends purpose to her daily existence and distracts from her pain long enough for it to begin to fade.
Murder at Barclay Meadow is Eckel’s debut novel, and it’s a mildly paced but thoroughly engaging read. The plot is solid, and while I wouldn’t exactly call the mystery fair play, Eckel offers up enough suspects and red herrings to lend that illusion. The prose is atmospheric and intelligent; the author vividly describes the sights, scents, sounds, and sensations that make up Rosalie’s world. And the relationships Eckel’s crafts between characters are realistic and nuanced. Eckel’s training as a psychotherapist shines through; the book’s quietest moments are by far its most compelling, and she uses them to offer some shockingly insightful observations on divorce and its aftermath.
My only real criticism of Murder at Barclay Meadow is that Eckel doesn’t do nearly enough to develop her antagonists; they read like cartoon villains. The town sheriff is perhaps the worst offender, bullying Rosalie so aggressively and single-mindedly that their confrontations border on parody, sapping the story of tension and authenticity. The mystery may be the engine that drives the plot, but at its heart, it is a story about love, loss, and finding oneself. It’s entertainment and self-help wrapped up in a single murderous package, and it’s a refreshing change from the cozy norm.