However improbable her name, Nevada Barr is a real writer, and her Anna Pigeon novels are first-rate mysteries, each of them set in a National Park. Barr was a Park Ranger for a number of years herself, like Anna Pigeon. A measure of how good these books are: I switched to buying in hardcover when Endangered Species was published, an extravagance I almost never indulge for mysteries. (I also buy paperback reading copies for books I'll read again, which I did for Blind Descent.)
There's no excuse for bad writing (see Cornwell, Patricia); with all the books being published and purchased these days, the publisher can only cite the most mundane excuse, greed. Barr needs no excuses; her prose is faultless, her characters believably nuanced and detailed, her plots well-crafted. Her novels move crisply and relentlessly, but not in too predictable a direction. I figured out 'whodunit' before Anna Pigeon did in A Superior Death, but I had the advantage of knowing that she was in a novel. Barr would not have spent so much time creating an apparently unrelated secondary plot unless it was indeed related. And sure enough.
Of the first five novels, I was surprised to find A Superior Death among the most engaging, because what initially caught my interest about Barr was her western settings, and A Superior Death is set on Isle Royale in the northern midwest. Track of the Cat, where I started, is an exciting read, and the plot thickens nicely. A good deal of its strength is getting to know the protagonist, one of the most interesting 'detectives' in the business. I read Ill Wind out of order, before A Superior Death, and it was a bit disappointing on the plot side, but the continuing characters and the evolution of Anna Pigeon's personal demons, alcoholism and the loss of her husband, drew me back, fortunately, to the book I had skipped.
The strength of the books is in the continuing characters. Anna's delicate flirtation with lesbianism in the first novel remains unresolved two books later, not because it is a continuing mystery, but because Anna's loneliness, so subdued and permanent, blurs the line between friendship and love even more than that line blurs for most of us. (Barr has also written a western novel on a lesbian theme, Bittersweet.) Christina is such a wonderful woman that one needn't be 'open-minded' to wish that Anna would succumb. Barr does not leave her best characters behind from one book to the next, so the sense of a life evolving is strong in the books. Like Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins and James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux, Anna is someone we come to care about, and that brings us back.
Firestorm and Blind Descent use a continuing character in a startling way, and Endangered Species maintains Anna's personal links back to Mesa Verde where she, despite her creator's various peregrinations, is still stationed. Anna's romance with FBI agent Frederick Stanton spans multiple novels, remaining a key plot element into Liberty Falling and a background presence beyond. Endangered Species introduces a surprising twist into that romance, and the sketchy resolution bodes interestingly for a subplot borne out in Liberty Falling. Anna has a new beau at the end of Deep South. He is in the background, a promising and unresolved complication, at the end of Blood Lure, center stage again in Hunting Season and then, exasperatingly, we get two more novels' worth of "Will she or won't she [marry the bugger]" followed in Hard Truth with the incredible decision, immediately after the honeymoon for an off-stage marriage, to separate again "to see if we care more about our jobs than each other." I'd have handed her the annulment papers to take on the trip. Oh well, being ridiculous is, sadly enough, humanizing.
I confess that I keep hoping, vainly, there will not be further mayhem at the expense of Ms. Pigeon's aging but quite respectable body as the series continues. One predictable element of the books is that Anna will get hospitalized in some unique way at the end. Commendably non-sexist, but one begins to worry that there won't be a lot left of her if the series lasts much longer. Andrew Vachss' Burke gets hurt less, and less frequently (at least up until the mayhem that results in Pansy's death and his own near-death). Dave Robicheaux and Robert Parker's Spenser seldom end up in the hospital. The Pigeon pattern is broken, briefly, in Blind Descent. When Barr returns to this plot device in Deep South, the description is so good that I don't mind. But Hunting Season essentially repeats both the mid-story jeopardy attack and the climactic fight scene, and one sighs. Not until Hard Truth do we get a "jeopardy" scene that pays for the popcorn.
As I said, read the books in publication order, which is the same as their internal chronology. They are the fabric of an interesting life; let Barr decide how you weave it. Nevada Barr is one of the good ones. Male or female. Her pot usually boils an interesting stew. Even if it isn't her real name.
I'm not sure it's a good idea to begin a mystery series by lifting someone else's title. I suspect it's meant to be a private joke of some sort, since the original Track of the Cat was written by the grey eminence of Nevada writers, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, a 'neighbor' of Barr's childhood. It comes as no surprise that Barr grew up in Susanville, California, an hour or so through Clark's mountains to his own home in Reno. And her parents obviously had some close connections to the neighboring state or they might have named her Mildred. However, there is no discernable connection between Barr's book and Clark's classic, myth-laden western, and Nevada Barr's Track of the Cat is such good fun that we forget the odd whimsy of the title almost at once.
Set in the Guadalupe Mountains in Texas, the novel introduces the first 'out-West detective' to engage my interest of all the Tony Hillerman-inspired gang. (There are more lately. For more information, read my essay on what I call "Indian mysteries.") Anna Pigeon, middle-aged park ranger, ex-New York socialite, is not, once you get to know her, improbable at all. Her background unfolds so subtly that by the time we learn the improbable, we know her well enough to concede that most lives are improbable looked at carefully. Pigeon has fled from her actor husband's grotesquely mundane death (run down by a New York cab) to the farthest place from the city she can find.
As with most good American mystery fiction, the plot itself is merely the fine-tuned mechanism that supports the real story: the character of the protagonist, her relationships, past and present, and where she is going. That suggests an odd problem. I suspect that the books need to be read in order, to allow Anna's life to unfold as it does in the stories, to be best enjoyed. Having failed to follow my own advice, I speak from experience.
Certainly Track of the Cat is the place to begin your acquaintance with Anna Pigeon. If you don't like it, you won't like the rest either. If you do, you will enjoy A Superior Death even more, because it is a better-structured mystery, because the familiar characters grow interestingly, and the new ones promise more. And the quality of the first two will get you over the minor hump of Ill Wind.
Of the first three Anna Pigeon novels, this one, the second, is the best mystery. A submarine variant of the locked-room murder puzzle as old as Sherlock Holmes, it will keep you thinking to the last page, when the untwisting of the plot reveals surprise after surprise.
I say this in spite of having figured out some dozens of pages before Anna Pigeon did who killed Denny Castle and why. As I said, I had the reader's advantage; what seemed to Pigeon, from inside the novel, an irrelevant incident I as reader knew was probably going to turn out to be related, else why mention it? A measure of a good mystery novel is that getting ahead of the sleuth is not exasperating but exhilarating. You will enjoy watching her catch up, and the remaining, real mystery, not who but how, is satisfyingly unpredictable.
The strength of the Anna Pigeon novels is characters and relationships, and A Superior Death is no exception. Barr's odd dedication is an ironic commentary on the denouement of the novel; the right people get caught and punished, but we know them well enough that we take no real satisfaction in their suffering. It is, all in all, an extraordinarily civilized book. We like the killer here, and yet we are satisfied that justice is served (we don't like the killer that much).
Maybe I'm too close to the subject matter, since I've loved Mesa Verde for decades, or maybe the conclusion of Ill Wind is just to improbable for my taste, but this book is one of the weak spots in the Anna Pigeon novels. Keep in mind, however, that a reader can get spoiled by excellence, and the first two novels were so good that a 'weak spot' is still pretty respectable.
Barr's subplots supernatural agents, domestic violence, ecotage, simple greed twist and turn and resolve neatly, perhaps too neatly. The book is full of Barr's trademark twists on cliché, the dustballs that make the room real. When people are not what they seem, it is never the melodramatic reversal that makes the detective's rather dull assistant exclaim, "Great Heavens, Pigeon, who would have guessed!?" Instead we shake our heads and murmur, "Yes, we all have secrets." Good stuff.
I don't like the ending. The killer is a bore, even less interesting than the one in Track of the Cat. But that said, the subplots a stalked wife, a New Age docent ('interpreter') as wonderfully tiresome as Tinker and Damien were charming in A Superior Death, Anna's evolving interest in Frederick carry us through to a great reward, the excellent next novel, Firestorm.
Firestorm is Barr's best crafted book, a 'Ten Little Indians' variant where the isolation is a forest fire and the crime another murder in a locked room, as in A Superior Death. But once again the strength of the characterizations drives the novel. I spent most of the novel about ten steps ahead of Anna's sleuthing and knew who the killer was so certainly that I was irritated by a diversion near the end.
By the time you reach the end of the novel, the few characters you wish were guilty clearly aren't, and the ones you hope aren't guilty are being culled slowly by Anna's discoveries. An unresolvable problem that Barr resolves neatly. Bravo!
As with the other books, the landscape, the special place, and Anna's appreciation for what her city sister calls 'the wilderness' (by which she means anywhere you can't get a decent latté) are an important part of the pleasure of the story. Bouncing from park to park, Barr may not have absorbed the depth and breadth of knowledge of the country that Tony Hillerman brings to his Leaphorn/Chee novels, but she has a westerner's understanding for place and the land.
The spawning loggerhead turtles are Barr's endangered species; their egg-laying and the hatch of the babies frame the novel nicely. All the trademark elements are here Anna's wonderful relationship with her horrid sister, two dotty lesbians (this novel's non-standard lovers), significant damage to Anna's physique (lately she's started shrugging it off, not manifesting adopted machismo so much as the contempt bred by familiarity). And a plot that resolves into two crimes (two and half, if you are a stickler, and the half is as wonderful as the dotty old lovers).
Barr's strength is her characters, particularly her women, and most particularly her strong women. Anna's comfortable relationships with the congenial sexism of the men she works with are secondary to the solidly developed women around her. When they turn out to be killers, it seldom matters whether we liked them or not. Barr's women are always at the center of the action, and here all the men are tangential.
Even though there are predictable events and threads in an 'Anna Pigeon' novel, Barr has a talent for twisting key elements just outside your expectations. Here, for once, the killer is obvious, but because Barr's killers are never obvious, we dismiss the easy answer. Fooled again.
I've been sufficiently impressed that I've started buying Barr's novels in hardcover, unheard of for me. Blind Descent is located at Carlsbad Caverns, and most of the action takes place underground, in the recently discovered Lechuguilla cave near the caverns. Like Firestorm, we are left with a pretty limited set of suspects, and the question of whether there has been a crime (murder or accident?) provides an additional complication. I'm not a caving or climbing enthusiast, and I've read that purists quibble with some of the technical detail, but I found the climbing descriptions interesting and easy to follow.
But the key is always the mystery, and here the plot is filled with twists and turns, like the cave setting. Anna Pigeon continues to grow as a character. And Barr takes some interesting chances. In Firestorm she brought back a character to make her a suspect; here she brings one back to make her the victim. Pigeon is at the cave because a friend from the Mesa Verde staff has been injured and has asked for her. When Anna arrives, deep in the cave, she learns that the injury was probably not an accident. Before they can get the injured woman out, a second "accident" turns the crime to murder in a terrible twist of fate, and Anna tracks the killer down. Plotting is the key to this one; with layer upon layer of suspects, a second rescue, and a new love interest that hasn't developed yet in subsequent novels (Mammoth Cave is just up the road from Vicksburg...). The ending is a shocker (and, I can't resist, a real cliffhanger).
Not the best of the series. Set in New York, with much soul-searching about the big city, and more energy spent on the illness and love life of sister Molly than on the mystery. A curiously disengaged book, I think because it lacks the outdoor setting of the others. There is no real inevitability about the conclusion, and the crowd of minor characters suggests that Barr is not very interested in any of them.
Like 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." One wonders, comparing this book to its predecessor, if my reaction to Liberty Falling 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. Anna's animals are back, and Barr concentrates on giving us a strong sense of the place. The murder, involving a clumsily staged KKK reference that hints to racial overtones, turns out to be much more complicated (and less) than it seems. And 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. When I finished Deep South, I found myself hoping that we would get a few more Natchez Trace novels before Anna moves on. 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.
Anna is off to Glacier National Park in Montana, but only temporarily, to help gather data for a DNA index of the park's grizzlies. Many references to her permanent post on the Natchez Trace, and her new beau, the married sheriff, make it clear that we'll be back in Mississippi eventually.
Be careful what you wish for. The second Natchez Trace novel, this, and it manages to miss everything that made the first a real pleasure. It reads, in places, like someone writing a weak imitation of Deep South.
A local nobody, just another redneck Bubba, is found dead on Park land under circumstances suggesting that he died while engaging in indoor sports that involved bondage. Nearby is a hint that he may have been killed by some religious conservative for his sexual sins. Unfortunately, we don't buy any of it for an instant. This is a guy whose idea of kinky sex would be watching dogs get it on. Soon, Anna is inexplicably attacked by three guys poaching deer, and nobody except us, gentle reader, seems to smell a plot thread there. Throw some Faulkneresque miscegenating subplots and you have a "going through the motions" novel that doesn't offer much to anyone but a diehard Anna Pigeon fan.
If you've never read one of the Anna Pigeon novels, and you start with this one, you will wonder what all the fuss is about. Don't do it. Go find A Superior Death, Firestorm, or Blind Descent, or read the solid and promising first Natchez Trace novel, Deep South. Save this one for later. Or give it a pass entirely.
A big piece of the appeal in the Anna Pigeon novels is setting. There is nothing anyone could do to convince me to enjoy Liberty Falling, for example, any more than they could induce me to come back to New York City. I don't care if the Statue of Liberty is a "National Park," the term has been stretched past my definition. Barr almost lost me for the same reason with Endangered Species, which hauled us clear over to the Atlantic coast and barely paid for the trip.
Flashback is the last straw. It's set on the Dry Tortugas historic site, an old Union fort converted to a prison. For me, the significance of the prison is that it was the concentration camp where the U.S. government sent American Indian leaders of the nineteenth century resistance to die. A novel that ignores that has all the appeal of a novel about what a rough life the guards had at Treblinka. Who cares?
It didn't help that I read the book about the same time as I read Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island, for which it is a tepid substitute. Not that Shutter Island is a great novel either; it may be my least favorite of Lehane's, even compared to the weakest Kenzie/Gennaro novel, Sacred. But Barr works the "mysterious connection between history and contemporary events" with such tedious predictability that one ends up being interested in neither story, rather than both.
Science fiction writer Connie White has remarked somewhere that coincidence should never work to your hero's benefit. I would argue that it should never work to the author's, either. Anna arrives at the island and quickly we learn that her great something or other was married to the officer in command when Samuel Mudd, the physican jailed for the crime of mending John Wilkes Booth's leg, was there. "Oh look! And here's the dear old thing's diary!!" Right.
Generous readers insist that she pulls it off. Sorry. What she pulls off is the stops on her fans' credulity.
Flashback exhausted my patience so completely that I ignored High Country when it came out. The premise was a bit too arch for me: Anna is waitressing at Yosemite as an undercover agent for the Park Service. This leads to that, look at the wonderful scenery, oh my gosh what is that bad person doing?
When we arrived at the obligatory "Anna gets beat up and put in the hospital" scene, I found myself thinking how much better Thomas Perry handled a very similar situation in the first Jane Whitefield novel, Vanishing Act. It is not good, I think, when an author sets us thinking of how much better someone else did what they are doing.
But all told, High Country is not bad. Not, unfortunately, especially good, either. Elements of Anna's story are getting threadbare. We are now three novels into avoiding True Love, and I am mortally tired of the Richardsonian breathlessness of the "Will she or won't she?" dilemma. A bit like Margaret Coel's endless flirtation with letting her Arapahoe heroine and the Catholic priest ("Sheloveshim Ifonlyitweren'tforhisvows Andheloveshertoo Ohsigh") get it on. After the ninth or tenth novel, I pretty much couldn't give a damn what they did, together or in separate beds.
Marry him or buy him dinner, but spare me the jiggle.
Well, it's been a long wait for an Anna Pigeon novel actually worth recommending to anyone but a diehard fan. Here it is, the Rocky Mountain National Park novel some of us have been begging for.
The great strength of the novel is paraplegic mountaineer Heath Jarrod. She is there from the first page, filled with irony, self-pity, and rage against the accident that cost her a spinal injury, and she is the avenging angel who puts things right as the novel winds to its close. Watching her grow from an angry cripple to a person ready to face the world is a great pleasure.
The action of the novel centers around a polygamous cult obviously modeled on Warren Jeff's "fundamentalist Mormon" community which recently fled their Utah/Arizona roots for Texas and, yes, Colorado. Barr is too savvy a businessman to take on the Mormons; leave that for silly idealists like Jon Krakauer (Under the Banner of Heaven). So her polygs are some sort of vaguely Protestant sect. A bit like replacing Nazis with really mean Lithuanians, but there you are. Once you get past the "I don't mean Mormons" baloney, the picture is chilling.
The story weaves together two threads of child abuse, with a perverse thread of Stockholm Syndrome that gives the last few pages most of their suspense. Once again, relying on topical crime introduces some unfortunate parallels. As it happens, Kathy Reichs' novel from last year, Monday Mourning, uses a very similar conclusion. One wishes mystery writers didn't all read the same newspapers.
Barr is also the author of two books I haven't read. Her first novel, Bittersweet, is the story of two women, lovers, in the colonial West. Reviews of the novel at Amazon.com are mixed. It's on my Wish List, but I haven't gotten around to it yet.
Some links for more information on Barr:
Search for out-of-print Nevada Barr titles at Powells.