Who is Bel Barrett? Is the fictional detective, star of her own series of mystery novels actually their author, Jane Isenberg, in disguise?
I had to consider the possibility.
The sun was slanting through my office windows, almost down. It was now or never, in another hour it would be time to light the Shabbos candles.
Consider the evidence: for a start, no one has ever seen the two of them in the same place at the same time. But there’s more—both are women of a certain age, mature women who have spent a lifetime teaching English in a North Jersey community college. They are old enough to have experienced hot flashes and both were Bat Mitzvahed as adults—though Isenberg coyly claimed that Bel Barrett went first.
“Bel is like me in that she was born and grew up in Passaic, N.J.,” Isenberg confessed when I got her on the phone after the following sunset. “She’s a New Jersey girl. She lives in Hoboken,” where Isenberg moved with her own family in 1977. Happenstance? I thought, but I let her keep talking.
“She has two adult children, one of whom lives on Capitol Hill in Seattle. She teaches at a community college in Jersey City, as I did for hundreds of years.” Aha! I thought, still holding my tongue—after all, when somebody’s ready to spill their guts, the best thing to do is step back and let them. You never know what’s going to come out, and this way you don’t get your shoes dirty.
Then things started to fall apart. Some of the pieces just refused to fit. For one, Bel Barrett had a much more adventurous side to her than Isenberg was willing to admit to.
Unlike the author, who moved her family to Hoboken so her husband could work across the bridge in New York, Barrett met her future husband after she was already ensconced in Frank Sinatra’s hometown. What’s more, they didn’t get married right away.
Bel, she said, developed “a live-in relationship, at the beginning of the series.” The fictional character met Sol Hecht, her longtime partner, at a meeting of the Committee to Save the Waterfront in Hoboken in order to forestall development. “They fell in love and he moved in with her to her row-house in Hoboken,” said Isenberg.
It wasn’t until the fourth novel in the series that she allowed the couple to tie the knot, at about the same time as her daughter announced that she was pregnant and engaged—leaving Bel to arrange a wedding from 3,000 miles away. I could feel the threads of my case beginning to slip through my fingers as she continued to talk.
“She’s a left-over ‘60s person, I guess is the best way to describe her,” Jane Isenberg said of her protagonist. “She very much supports the underdog and wants to see everybody get along and everybody be at peace, She wants to help her students get their piece of the pie.”
One of the trickiest pieces of the puzzle was the way that even as Isenberg keeps adding years, Bel remains remarkably resilient and relatively youthful. Jane said the secret to Barrett’s longevity is her editor at Avon Books, publisher of the Bel Barrett mystery novels.
“My publisher has encouraged me not to let her get over 60—she’s stuck in what we loosely define as midlife,” Isenberg admitted with no signs of guilt. “She does get older in that things change and she reflects the current thinking,” she added in her own defense.
“In each book I try to deal with a different midlife issue and she does not remain menopausal forever. So, in one book she’s dealing with taking care of aging parents, which is something many midlife women have to do. In another book, she’s dealing with parenting the adult children, including the one who’s going to get married far away and is pregnant and the other one who’s come home to live at a down point in his life—many of us have experienced that—and brings the dog.”
A son who moved back home with his dog, eh? I told my assistant, the lovely Noni Darnett, to track down that lead. Noni was hardly the best investigator I had on the payroll, but being fictional herself, she worked for practically nothing—and watching her go through the motions, especially walking away, was worth every penny I imagined having to pay her. Still, she came up empty-handed.
Finally I took a page from the reporter’s handbook I keep on my desk and asked her outright—“Are you really Bel Barrett in disguise?” The answer came easily to her—perhaps too easily, as if she’d answered that question before.
“Bel Barrett is kind of an alter ego and kind of a collage of lots of the women I worked with over the years who were very gutsy and very giving and amusing, and also menopausal at one time,” Isenberg said.
“She’s more of an altar ego than a copy of me because I am not very brave. I’m not into solving murders, I would probably run the other way screaming. People who know me think, ‘Oh, she has so much in common with you,’ but people who don’t know me think that she’s them. She’s supposed to be somebody who’s easy to identify with for midlife women.”
So that was it: mystery solved. Isenberg and Barrett are definitely different characters, even if they do occupy the same brain.
Isenberg moved not too long ago to Issaquah to be closer to her real-life daughter, a physical therapist with “two succulent and delicious kids.”
And yet, the similarities just kept shaking me awake as I tried to get some rest that night. Both were, in Jane Isenberg’s own words, “pediatric Jews”—meaning they haven’t thought about it since they were kids. “I was always very involved with the synagogues wherever I lived, but secular. I would be on the boards but I didn’t go to services,” she said
“Was” is the operative word here, said Isenberg, remarking on her own late Jewish renewal, who now boasts membership at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Bellevue and in the temple’s Sisterhood. The change of heart was spurred in part by her writing about Bel’s adult Bat Mitzvah in her fourth mystery novel, Midlife Can Be Murder.
“By the time I wrote that book,” she recalled, “I was living in Amherst, Mass. Now, no one goes to Amherst, Mass. for the Jewish experience, but lo and behold, there was a wonderful Reconstructionist synagogue.”
For two years she studied with a group of other adults and finally, in 2003, was called to the Torah herself.
These days, she said, “I attend services and Torah study whenever they are in Bellevue,” as well as participating in an on-line Torah study group. “While the adult Bat Mitzvah was wonderful and moving and all of those good things, it was not enough and I am very eager to learn more,” she said.
Isenberg’s sixth Bel Barrett novel, Hot On The Trail appeared in bookstores last November and her seventh is already awaiting publication. I grilled her about the upcoming book but all I got out of her is that the victim is a wannabe hip-hop artist.
Beyond that, she said she would like to write “a Jewish book” one day—a book that has some Jewish history and a Jewish protagonist, she said.