In Jane Isenberg's first mystery, The "M" Word, one might suppose correctly that the "M" in the title refers to the word murder, yet it also refers to the word menopause.
Bel Barrett, our heroine, is a 52-year-old River Edge Community College (RECC) professor who begins this story by joining an online menopausal support group to deal with her overwhelming list of midlife aging symptoms. In her spare time, she solves the murder of RECC's president, Dr. Altagracia Garcia. Her menopause symptoms at times whine their way through the book and sometimes overwhelm the mystery.
Dr. Garcia brings new energy and change to RECC. She is very popular with the students and faculty for adding new curriculum, cutting the dead wood, and having national job searches to fill new positions, but in the process, she creates many enemies. Her goal is to move the college out of its rented urban setting to new permanent buildings on some beautiful property next to the river creating a kind of "Harvard on the Hudson."
She organizes the Fall Festival where local politicians and restaurateurs auction off samples and recipes to benefit the college. As Dr. Garcia is busy wheeling, dealing, and eating over the mounds of food, she clutches her throat, chokes, and falls to the ground. Bel returns from fanning herself outside because of a hot flash in time to see Dr. Garcia fall over. Not knowing it is a crime scene, everyone cleans up and any evidence at there is lost.
The most likely suspect turns out to be a former student of Bel's, Oscar Beckman, a student in the Culinary Institute at RECC, who is the last person to serve food to Dr. Garcia. The police discover a threatening letter written by Oscar, which he wrote the previous semester after he was expelled for cheating.
Bel feels Oscar is not violent and is more likely to have created a nude meringue and displayed it publicly to embarrass Dr. Garcia, and she decides to look into the matter. She uncovers a set of suspects whose lucrative and easy lifestyle changes after Dr. Garcia's leadership, because she revises old policies by demoting them, firing them, or being unwilling to grant favors to them.
Bel's determination to seek the truth heats ups when she is attacked by a hit and run roller-blader. After the brakes in her car are tampered with, she knows she is on the right track and resolves to continue her investigation regardless of the danger.
Bel's varied list of symptoms include hot flashes, mood swings, anxiety attacks, a need for trifocals, short-term memory loss, graying hair, weight gain, dry eyes, and loss of bladder control. Rather than being entertaining and humorous in an educational sort of way, these symptoms threaten to turn into a full-fledged gripe session. Why isn't Bel more proactive about her health by seeking a doctor at the beginning of the book and does she enjoy being miserable?
In her favor, Bel has a charming and loving family and a set of interesting and good friends. There is room for her to grow more content with her age and become an intriguingly, multi-faceted, mature character.
The urban setting is appealingly portrayed and is filled with engaging, real-life people. The crime and murder are well constructed, but the clues are a bit too meager. All in all, this first effort by Jane Isenberg may evolve into a mystery series whose star grows into a woman who is insightful, sharp-witted, confident, and content with maturity.