Friday, November 18, 2011

Read Alike: Nevada Barr

Nevada Barr’s U.S. Park Ranger heroine, Anna Pigeon, is a larger-than-life woman whose contradictory thoughts and feelings mirror those of many readers. Anna is at once capable yet self-doubting, professionally dedicated to her work and reluctant to commit to a personal relationship, serious and logical but with a wryly humorous outlook and a willingness to accept the supernatural as a possibility. Although claustrophobic, she will enter caves, tunnels and wells in pursuit of the truth. Fiercely loyal herself, she is nonetheless always amazed when others demonstrate their loyalty on her behalf.

Elements of paranormal activity often show up in Barr’s stories in the form of ghostly appearances of long-dead persons, hallucinations or visions, etc. Frequently there is a strong historical tie with emotional or unhappy events of the past. Barr, a park ranger herself, employs a strong sense of place in all of her stories, setting them in various areas of spectacular beauty or historical interest, from West Texas to Florida to the Statue of Liberty, and many points in between. While identifying the evil and tracking down the killer in each setting, Anna in her official role is dedicated to nurturing and protecting the natural world against the greed of those who would despoil it for their own purposes.

The continuing internal conflict between the demands of Anna's work and desire for independence vs. the loneliness she experiences after accepting far-flung posts allows Barr slowly to develop a complex and often long-distance relationships. Other friends she meets in her various positions offer on-the-spot support in crisis, forming short-term bonds which seem as deep and strong as those of the close family Anna lacks. Pacing is not rushed in fact some sequences feel almost dreamlike at times. Barr skillfully builds tension throughout the stories and the series by re-introducing characters from past novels in continuing roles, embroiling Anna in family and friendship issues, and allowing her at times to digress mentally from the current situation into what-if scenarios.

Although each book in the Anna Pigeon series stands alone as a mystery, Track of the Cat was the first story and as such offers valuable insights into Anna's current character, strengths and foibles and develops a basis for the rest of the stories. When Anna's husband dies, she leaves New York City for a job as U.S. Park Ranger in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park of western Texas. Shortly thereafter, she discovers the remains of a fellow ranger, Sheila Drury, who was apparently killed by a mountain lion. Anna is not convinced, however, and begins her own investigation into the death.


Of the range of Wildlife Mystery Thrillers currently available, Jessica Speart's Rachel Porter mysteries are perhaps the closest to the feel of the Anna Pigeon stories. Sassy and spunky, yet with an underlying vulnerability, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agent Rachel Porter investigates all sorts of crimes for which she is woefully unprepared. Every time she solves a crime her bosses affect a transfer to somewhere even more remote and undesirable, where she immediately finds herself in more trouble. In Border Prey, Rachel is cultivating a snitch that is then found dead -- murdered with his cell phone. Hot on the track of smugglers, she discovers that a booming business in all sorts of exotic animals is being conducted in her territory, by the man who previously held her job. The action is fast-paced and the characters range from pathetic, to ornery, to lovable but eccentric. Meanwhile, Rachel's continuous stream-of-consciousness commentary ties it all together with humorous asides and wistful musings on the location and status of her absent lover, FBI agent Jake Santou, who is currently stationed half the continent away.

Karen Kijewski's Kat Colorado Mysteries, although set in big-city environments rather than scenic parklands, embody many of the same factors which appeal to Barr's readers. Kat is a private investigator with a cop for a boyfriend in an on-again, off-again long-distance relationship. Although the pacing is more rapid than in Barr's work, the same sense of urgency prevails, drawing the reader along from one shocking discovery to another but leavening the experience with humor and well-developed recurring secondary characters who support Kat as she works through issues in both her personal and professional life. In Alley Kat Blues, Kat tries to find the person who mutilated a young woman and left her along the highway. At the same time, she has discovered her lover's bed is occupied by an exotic dancer and his time is taken up with trying to identify and apprehend a brutal serial killer, which leaves him neither the energy nor the inclination to reassure Kat of his fidelity and interest in her.

Finally, a book set halfway across the world with traditional Scotland-Yard detectives may take the reader in different directions, but there are many parallels between A Finer End, by Deborah Crombie, and the adventures of Anna Pigeon. Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and Sergeant Gemma James were formerly partners at Scotland Yard. Since Gemma's promotion to Inspector, they no longer work together but their personal relationship has grown and prospered. Gemma, however, has a small son and is not quite ready to take the plunge into matrimony, while Duncan is facing parenting issues of his own. When his childhood friend and cousin calls requesting help, Duncan sees this as a chance to spirit Gemma off to Glastonbury for a mini-vacation and some courting practice. The location itself is exceptionally dramatic, being an ancient Druidic ruin and former legendary Abbey. Malevolent forces, visions and tangled pasts combine to create a situation fraught with tension and evocative of both paranormal and criminal experiences, while Gemma tries to sort out herself, her feelings and intentions toward Duncan, and the murder of one person and attempts on at least two more.

Other authors that may write in a style similar to Barr include: Peter Bowen, C.J. Box, Lillian Jackson Braun, Linda Fairstein, Sue Grafton, Sue Henry, Tony Hillerman, J.A. Jance, and Dana Stabenow.

Annotations courtesy of NoveList.

Please stop by the Recommendations Desk on the first floor, check out NoveList Plus on the library's website, or visit W. 11th & Bluff next week for more reading suggestions. Or submit a Personal Recommendations request, and we'll create a reading list just for you!

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