Sunday, August 2, 2015

Nevada Barr's Pigeon Bar

I’m officially in Nevada Barr’s bar. What a corny way to open this post, right? But please excuse me as I lament my new found enthusiasm for this author.  I recently finished Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat, and found myself covered with giddiness for more. It's book one in Barr’s park ranger, Anna Pigeon, series. It’s also a first for me–concerning Barr. Nonetheless, the park ranger business is Barr’s hook, so her female sleuth is essentially catching killers in national parks (apparently different parks across the country, per series entry). Sounds pretty interesting and unique, right?  Well, I would say yes.

So let me quickly set up Track of the Cat for you. Written in the third, Track of the Cat opens with Anna Pigeon semi-fresh out of her internship and officially a park ranger out on business. And it’s hot business. It's Texas back country. It's the Guadalupe Mountain National Park where Anna is following a routine patrol tracking local mountain lion activity. After giving up the hustle and bustle of New York City, Anna’s at peace monitoring wildlife populations over the unpredictable urban life. Unfortunately, her patrol uncovers the body of a fellow park ranger.  Examining the body, it appears Anna’s colleague’s death was caused by a mountain lion mauling. But there’s something off. Something wrong. What was the victim doing out in the park alone, with no visible water canteen attached to her pack? 

As more clues mount, and news spread how a mountain lion is dangerously on the loose, Anna quickly has to piece together the murder.  Especially because rangers are rounding up to find the mountain lion deemed responsible.  It's an injustice Anna is determined to block.  Naturally, the more Anna uncovers, the further she becomes prey to the victim’s killer.

Now let's just get into what sold me the most!  There's two things: Setting & Anna.


By Barclay Gibson
If you’re writing about Texas back country, you must convey its conditions as vividly as possible.  If it's a part of your series' hook, I would even consider it a character in itself.  You have mysteries surrounding a P.I.’s cluttered office space, and some surrounding an amateur sleuth perusing baking goods in a bakery to solve murders.  Though I point this out loosely, those settings don't take much for an author to vortex readers into its atmosphere. An office, town, bakery, and school are familiar and almost every day to a readers' experience. 

However, an author illustrating a character trampling through high brush, while communicating how the sweltering sun burns along her backside, requires a special kind of setting intensity.  I say that considering the writer has to carry such throughout the entire book.  Additionally, dropping info on the various sediments' conditions, along with wildlife conservation, requires the right kind of tug to bring it all alive. Without a doubt, I thought Barr brought the deal.  Her take on Texas back country made me feel hot and dehydrated, while following her protagonist's trekking through her environments.  I would either reach for my fan or a bottle of water while reading Track of the Cat.

“Moist and alive with grasses and succulents, the flank of the mountain protected Anna’s right shoulder as she walked downhill. To her left a cliff dropped away for three hundred feet. Madrone and juniper, stunted dwarves of their highland selves, clung courageously to the few small ledges. Another thousand feet of scrub and brush then below that was water: the splendor of the desert.”

So that aliveness in the setting meant everything for the reading experience. And with Anna often isolated in the fierce back country–to track a killer–I worried about her safety from a number of lethal angles (would a rattlesnake attack her, or the killer snipe her over a cliff?).  However, this is where further storytelling intensity developed, and also where a sense of trust established between Barr, Anna, and I.  I trusted Barr knew her business; and I trusted her protagonist was capable, resourceful, and intelligent operating inside of it.  I'm always looking for female sleuths a little more resourceful and clever than her killer thinks.  A sleuth smart enough to use her surroundings to thwart the enemy.  I trusted Anna (Barr) to play with and use her surroundings, and she delivered.

“Anna cupped both hands behind her ears.  'Make moose ears,' she remembered absurdly from some naturalist's program.  Swiveling her head like a radar dish, she picked up the sound more clearly.  The pounding steps plodded methodically down from the northeast, marching up the long L-shaped wrinkle between her camp and Eastern's."
Anna Pigeon

Speaking of characters. I will say Anna Pigeon took a little warming up to–I won't lie. I wasn’t totally disagreeable at first, but, like many literary first impressions, I wasn’t all square with her. Simply put, I found her a little razor-edged and cold. And most of all, I thought she was a cynic. Well, calling her a cynic makes her sound severely displeasing.  So I’ll put it this way: she had a tough time trusting in the good of people, and went to lengths to provide confirmation of her distrust. 

To Anna, everyone deserves the fish eye; murder or no murder on the table.  She questions her boyfriend’s relationship motives, in parallel to her suspicions of murder.  She questions the intentions of her colleagues, and regards one's mental health capabilities as the result of murder.  The victim's mother doesn't escape Anna's watchfulness as well. With the exception of her sister, Molly, Anna was cautious of the entire branching roster. Granted her cautions aided her in capturing the culprit, and seemed only right for a mystery.  However, pages before the murder, I kind of got the feeling she was frozen in her trusting of others. 

But wait!  There were reasons why her character was constructed this way.  So I won't spoil what troubles Anna, but it's a sound understanding that only leaves room for her growth.  Nonetheless, it was Anna who did everything possible to speak up for both the lion mountain population and for her dead colleague. Her determination for justice overrode whatever “flaws” (which aren’t really) I initially perceived.

Though just to get an idea of Anna:

“There were days Anna doubted she was in West Texas at all, days it seemed as if she must be in the psych ward at Columbia Hospital suffering from the delusion that she and all her fellow inmates were park rangers.”

I’m going to close my final thoughts of Track of the Cat here. I wanted to get into the mystery element.  However, while the set up was unique for me, the motivation of greed was not. So I can't say how I gathered who the culprit was right off the bat, but the motive was apparent early on. Still, what I will say is that the ending was highly, highly satisfying.  While Anna is level-headed, one thing you should be aware of is how she's also ruthless when it suits.  Like, the girl is no joke when it comes to exacting justice.  Trust me on this.  No seriously, trust me.  The ending, and what she does... WOW.

Read my words: I can't wait to see where Anna goes–and grow.  I want more.  You've won me Barr!

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