The most beloved fictional old-broad amateur detective from small-town Maine has got to be – say it with me – Jessica Fletcher, iconically embodied by Angela Lansbury for a dozen well-spent years on TV’s Murder, She Wrote. But there is also much to recommend widowed retiree Maggie Carpenter of Owl’s Creek, especially for those who felt that Fletcher wasn’t rude enough, didn’t swear enough, and wasn’t handy enough with a firearm.

Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

Maggie and her daughter, 31-year-old Allison, switch off narrating “Freefall,” Jessica Barry’s sure-handed debut. As the novel begins, Allison is regaining consciousness at the scene of a plane crash. Like the plane’s body, hers is a disaster of gouges and scrapes, but unlike the plane’s pilot, Allison is at least alive.

She rounds up some provisions and gear both useful (Luna bars, a water bottle) and useless (her smashed, broken phone) and heads down a path. As the novel proceeds, Allison describes both her literal, present-day course and the figurative one that got her into this mess.

Maggie’s narration begins the July day when she receives a visit from her old friend Jim, Owl’s Creek’s chief of police: he breaks it to her that Allison has been in a plane crash – her name is on the airport’s flight register, and Jim identified her in the photo the airport has on record. The plane, a four-seater that was flown out of Chicago by a pilot whose identity isn’t yet known, crashed in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and while Allison’s body hasn’t been found, she’s presumed dead.

Maggie has no idea why Allison, who has been living in California for almost 10 years, was in Chicago, and she can’t answer Jim’s delicately posed question about whether Allison had a drug or alcohol problem – he’s done some poking around, and “a couple things turned up in the system,” he says sheepishly. How can Maggie know this stuff about Allison when she hasn’t spoken to her daughter in more than two years?

Soon more information comes to light: an investigation reveals that the crash wasn’t the result of engine failure – the original presumption – but pilot error. As for the owner of the plane, it turns out to be a man named Ben Gardner, the head of a pharmaceuticals company and a licensed pilot.

The police may have given up Allison for dead, but Maggie won’t. She didn’t spend two decades at a research desk at the Bowdoin College library for nothing. Between the library’s electronic database and her home computer she learns enough about Allison, not to mention about Ben Gardner, to convince her to hop on a plane to California. Just don’t expect Maggie to enjoy the Golden State’s weather: “All this sunshine felt unnatural to me.”

With “Freefall,” Barry, a pseudonym for a former publishing industry insider who now lives in Maine, delivers an assured thriller with a crafty structure. Although the novel leaves a couple of matters unresolved, and Allison’s behavior occasionally seems to reflect not a plausible course of action but narrative necessity, readers will gladly surrender to the crusty, unflagging Maggie and see her through her ordeal. Personality-wise, she has less in common with Jessica Fletcher than with fellow fictional Maine widow of a certain age Dolores Claiborne, who would have at least pretended to appreciate the promenade of condolence casseroles that Maggie Carpenter receives from neighbors and later dumps in the trash.

Nell Beram is a former Atlantic staff editor and coauthor of “Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies.”


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