by Nevada Barr
G.P. Putnam & Sons
320 pages, 2002
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Reviewed by Andi Shechter
The Golden Triangle, as it were, of mystery fiction is plot, character and setting. I know of few writers who can create an equilateral triangle; Nevada Barr at least excels in setting. Her lead series character, Anna Pigeon, is a ranger with the U.S. National Park Service (NPS), who over the last decade has worked at parks from California to New Mexico to New York -- all vastly different sites and locations, but each one strongly represented in Barr's stories. The degree to which I like each installment of this series depends in large part on its backdrop -- I prefer dry to wet, open to enclosed. I thought her first book, Track of the Cat (1993), was an excellent read in an amazing year that introduced Laurie R. King's first Kate Martinelli novel (A Grave Talent) and the debut works of Deborah Crombie, Kate Ross, Jan Burke and Steven Womack.
Pigeon is a widow. She was madly in love with her husband, Zach, who was killed in a hit-and-run. Pigeon has never really recovered from that horror; although she no longer takes refuge in a bottle, she remains withdrawn and has trouble making friends. (To be fair, moving all over the country to various national parks would make it hard to connect with others.) She has tried to find love, but in a rather odd twist, the man she once fell for wound up marrying her sister, Molly, instead. Molly is a psychiatrist and Anna's lifeline, and the sisters are still close, which helps make Anna seem more human.
In Hunting Season, this series' 10th entry, we find park supervisor Pigeon back on the Natchez Trace, in Mississippi (which was also the setting of Barr's Deep South, 2000). The almost-nude body of a man has been found not far north of the town of Natchez, at Mount Locust, a historic "stand," or small former inn, that's now part of the park district. Pigeon hopes to figure out how this man got to be where he was and, of course, how he died.
But the attractions of the mystery at the core of this story are overwhelmed by obnoxious characters and the frequent unpleasantness of the Mississippi setting. In an odd way, this tale, spread over miles of Mississippi park, is like a locked-room mystery in that there is only a given number of suspects (Barr is far too good a writer to bring in a total stranger at the end) and, because of the somewhat public nature of her job, Pigeon has limited time in which to solve the crime.
Although the Trace is a scenic place, and Barr is very skillful at giving her readers a feel for both its terrain and its history, the small-town nature of the area didn't spark my interest. Worse, the secondary figures in this drama run a short gamut from unpleasant to downright rotten. They're small-minded, racist, rude and annoying -- sometimes, all at once. Pigeon's promotion to her present job was resented by others who thought they deserved it instead, or who didn't like some outsider -- especially a woman -- upsetting their cozy sinecure, or both.
One NPS deputy, Randy Thigpen, comes off as a particularly lazy jerk who avoids work at any cost. It reflects extremely poorly on the park service that Thigpen has kept his job over the years. He pushes all the limits, all the rules, just because he can -- and because he thinks he's entitled to do so.
Pigeon doesn't do much better, at times. She has an iffy relationship going with an Episcopalian priest, who's also a local sheriff (and in the process of divorcing his wife).
One night, after the sheriff leaves her place, in this not-quite affair, Anna finds she can't sleep. So, to help her relax, she decides to find someone worth arresting:
Still in uniform, Anna retrieved her gun and, ignoring [her dog] Taco's most piteous pleas to come along, returned to her patrol car. It was Saturday night, America's night out. Surely she could catch somebody doing something. Then she'd come home to bed. Ruining someone else's evening was bound to have a soporific effect.
It was at this point in the novel that I started to not only lose patience with Anna Pigeon, but to dislike her. She finds it relaxing to ruin someone's evening? Even if that person is on her turf and doing something wrong, isn't there a better way to take it easy on a Saturday night?
Equally incredible is Pigeon's lack of savvy about racial issues and their importance in modern-day Mississippi. She hears people around her using racist epithets, and wonders why skin color matters. One late-blooming clue in the puzzle of the corpse at Mount Locust involves an extremely unstable and hateful woman, who employs bigoted language at every opportunity, and there is some talk that this woman might be upset at being part-black, at passing for white. This challenges the woman's perceived status in her community. How could a smart, often cynical woman like Anna Pigeon not know that racial politics still matter in America's South?
Thankfully, Hunting Season does deliver some favorable elaborations of Pigeon's character, as well. She has always been competent, as well as determined and married to her job. However, we learn here for the first time just how that job may have saved Pigeon's life after her husband's death. Some months after Zach's demise, she'd taken a small gun and a case of wine out to the hills of Utah and started drinking -- apparently intent on ending her own life:
Because the gods didn't want her company, her body had been found. Anna'd inadvertently driven off road on National Park Service land. A ranger, Ellen Rictman, stumbled on her when she was two bottles down.
There are some solidly written side stories in Hunting Season, including one about finding the bones of slaves at Mount Locust, and how field ranger Barth Dinkins tries to identify them and give them proper graves. And you get an understanding from this book of what park rangers do on a daily basis, as Pigeon and her colleagues deal with everything from poaching to dead car batteries.
Yet, the bad guys here are too obvious and odious, and even the supposedly good ones aren't such gems. One of Pigeon's friends, for instance, seems to be betraying her trust, though the ramifications aren't dealt with in the narrative.
I somewhat vaguely guessed the whodunit, and the denouement was ugly to watch. But the most telling thing when I finished Hunting Season is that I didn't want to reread it. I reread a lot of books, but the social backdrop for this yarn -- while vividly executed -- didn't make me crave a return visit. | April 2002
Andi Shechter chaired the Left Coast Crime convention in 1997, and in 2001 she was Fan Guest of Honor at Left Coast Crime. She is a part-time publicist and "appears" in two mysteries.