Like its predecessor, Liberty Falling, Barr's new Anna Pigeon novel hinges on the murder of a child, in this case a teenaged girl who, as Pigeon observes after a few days of investigation, "accumulated a lot of reasons to be a murder victim in her short life." Pigeon finds Danielle Posey dead near the Natchez Trace campground, her skull fractured and neck broken, a KKK sheet and a noose over her head. A racial murder?
One wonders, comparing this book to its predecessor, if my own reaction to Liberty Falling, the last Anna Pigeon novel, was fairly typical, because this book "corrects" all the misfires of that one. Sister Molly and her romance with Anna's old beau are in the distant background, a minor theme. Molly is not forgotten, and her advisory phonecalls are a part of the unfolding story, but less so than in any other book I can recall. And Anna's animals are back, Piedmont and the adopted Lab Taco, although Taco's fate might make him wish he'd stayed in Colorado. The moment when a nighttime "intruder" in the carport turns out to be an alligator more than capable of handling a 75-pound dog and a woman with a gun is one of the best action scenes in Barr's work.
In Deep South Barr concentrates on giving us a strong sense of the place. Her descriptions of the oppressive allure of the Mississippi river basin, with its soft fleshy vitality, so abrupt a contrast with the skeletal desert landscapes of Mesa Verde, are as vivid and accurate as James Lee Burke's evocations of southern Louisiana. The lush humidity and vegetation play a key role in the crime, the problems the crime scene presents, and the ultimate solution to the murder.
The minor characters — the two bloated doubly piggish Rangers who "work" for her, the cute Ranger from "next door," and the romantic interest, a sheriff who, like the crime, turns out to be very complicated — are interesting and engaging. I can't remember a single new character from Liberty Falling, or even "whodunit," exactly. Here, two romantic interests compete on equal terms for Anna's attention, and the interchangeable overweight slobs in the ranger station develop quickly into two distinct characters, their personalities and character as different as their skin color. And Stilwell and Davidson, the potential lovers, are equally attractive but in very different ways. The reader quickly takes a liking to both of them and when the Ranger, Stilwell, begins to look like a potential suspect, you will hope it isn't him. Barr has great fun putting Sheriff in and out of the romantic picture, running a course as twisted as the riverbed, and as full of snags.
I have some minor complaints about the book. Anna accepts the crippling of her dog, who literally destroys a door to try to save her from the alligator, a bit too easily for my taste, though it could be argued that she pays for that in the final pages. And Barr is not a tight plotter; she tends to drop the thread on interesting developments sometimes, like where the alligator comes from (we are given a handful of possibilities, and none are pursued) and the penguins (yes, penguins), which are never explained beyond the superficial dismissal of them as a manifestation of Dani Posey's mother's insanity. On the other hand, another red herring, the sleazy homosexual trysting spot in the park, goes from red herring to plot key as the story moves forward.
I've complained elsewhere about the mayhem Barr inflicts on Anna Pigeon's poor aging but reasonably well maintained body. It's getting worse. But I have to confess that the assault on Anna that ends the novel (and very nearly her life as well) is the most exciting fight description I've read in a long time. If the novel weren't in the first person, I would have been seriously concerned that she was going to die.
When I finished Deep South, I found myself hoping that we would get a few more Natchez Trace novels before Anna moves on. There is a wealth of material unmined in this novel: Dani's sociopathic brother, a prime suspect in the murder, is a thread worth following. The two wonderful men who rescue Anna from the swamp in the first ten pages and then disappear, never to be heard from again, left us hanging and hoping for more. We can't have too many murders on the little park, but Vicksburg is just over the hill, and if the head Ranger is close to the local county sheriff, then maybe....
At a time when every mystery writer seems to be moving their characters to the South, Barr has managed to make of the venue something uniquely her own. If you like Barr, you will love this book.
Buy Deep South at Amazon.com.
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