Nevada Barr is the reason I read mystery novels. In my younger days I read The Hardy Boys, but didn’t get into Nancy Drew (people look at me in horror when I admit that in person). When I was a little older I tried Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but didn’t really get into them either. Then one day somewhere in my 20s I was flipping through an outdoorsy magazine that had a book review section. My eye was caught by a review of The Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr. Maybe it caught my eye because I like cats or maybe it was because I was living in Nevada at the time. One thing for sure is that I was in graduate school at the time and needed a break from all the 19th century literature I was reading. And even though I was a literary snob at the time, The Track of the Cat seemed like a good prospect.
I don’t remember what bookstore I went to to buy the book, but I was hooked on the first page and fell in love with Anna Pigeon. Here was a modern protagonist I could related to: a woman who loved being in the great outdoors, who liked animals more than most people, and who could take a punch as well as dish them out. Anna Pigeon is a National Park Ranger and Barr herself was a NP ranger, which provides authenticity. The Track of the Cat won both the Agatha Award and Anthony Award for best first novel.
Shortly after that I started looking around at other contemporary mystery writers and got hooked on Sue Henry, Dana Stabenow, and Patricia Cornwell, among others. I even gave Christie and Sherlock Holmes a re-try and found I enjoyed them as well.
Since that reading experience in the early 1990s, I always kept an eye out for the next Anna Pigeon novel and have read all of them within days of their release, if not before if an ARC showed up. And so when the ARC of BURN showed up at the store I scooped it up like candy (or, in my case, a more honest analogy would be to say I grabbed it like a bag of potato chips).
Each book in the series is set in a different national park. When I recommend the Anna Pigeon series to customers at the store, people often have one of two reactions based, I think, on one of two assumptions that arises from people’s stereotypes of national parks and/or of women mystery writers. They assume the series will be in the cozy sub-genre, filled with people taking peaceful hikes in beautiful locations watching bears, moose, and bald eagles frolic in the background. Not so. Yes, the locations are beautiful and you do feel like you’re transported to each national park (and that was initially the main draw for me), but these books are far from cozy.
Each subsequent novel in the series has grown a bit darker, with Barr exploring increasingly vile and/or heartbreaking real-world situations. She is not for the faint of heart, but her characters are so well written and the plots are so engaging that I wish everyone had the stomach to read her. She is both gaining and losing readers as her novels take on more intense subject matter. I also love her sense of humor, which has a sarcastic edge that, to me, doesn’t seem embittered.
BURN is the 16th offering in the Anna Pigeon series. Its set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Barr’s current hometown, with a few scenes in Seattle. This might be a bit of a spoiler alert because the back of the book doesn’t mention it but the subject of BURN is sexual slavery, specifically the sexual slavery of children. It is not a pleasant subject but it is one that is increasingly in the news. As often happens when I’m reading a book, connects pop up. On August 2nd I received an email alert from change.org calling for Hilton Hotels to sign a pledge to prevent child prostitution, which you can check out here. An underground brothel that may have included children was recently uncovered in a 5-star Hilton in China.
I recommend Barr to readers who like realistic novels with strong female characters that explore real-life social issues. People often ask if they should read her series in chronological order. That’s my preference as a reader, but you don’t have to. Some readers have read her novels based on which national park is highlighted. Personally, I’ve enjoyed watching Anna Pigeon develop as a character and Nevada Barr grow as writer by reading the novels chronologically. Check out her website here for a list of all the books in the series and some background on each.