Friday, July 04, 2008

WINTER STUDY, Nevada Barr's New Anna Pigeon Mystery

It is not necessary to begin reading Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon series at the beginning -- and this fourteenth featuring the National Park Ranger is perfect as a stand-alone summer read. Even though we're cruising into true sun-blazing summer here in Vermont, WINTER STUDY stole me away to a snowy, ice-bound, subzero island at the Canada border and had me shivering in tension.

Pigeon's arrival in January at Isle Royale in Lake Superior is part of an attempt to balance the impact of a threatened Homeland Security takeover of priorities on the island, where a study of three interacting packs of wolves has benefited from the annual tourist-free season. Homeland Security, it seems, would prefer to have the science disappear, in favor of plenty of onlookers to watch the border area instead. Anna's sympathies are with the team investigating the wolves, even if some of them are maybe a tad more passionate than seems healthy.

The book has classic Nevada Barr pacing: layer upon layer of threat moves into place like glaciers sliding forward, and if Anna ignores some of the reasons to worry, she's at least noticing the changes around her, stacking them up to assess later. By the time "later" arrives, her quick choices to help out people in trouble dump her into situations that range from the killing effect of cold water when it's subzero above the ice, to concern over a possibly human-tormented animal that might be ready to take its revenge, to Anna's usual range of broken bones, sprains, and terror. Good thing the previous volumes have included a life partner whose image can warm her while she's hiding from a killer.

For a dizzying second, she saw the ice patch flipping like a coin, her feet going from under her, hands scrabbling uselessly, as she slid into the black death waiting below the ice, the patch of ice rocking back level, shutting her away from the promise of life and light. Iron-clawed terror gripped her insides. Courage drained out as blood from a severed artery.

Barr's statements about wolves come off a bit too facile, but they're good positions for Anna to take as she weighs what the animal investigators believe is going on. The plot is tight, all too believable, and proves that you can bring a strong character back to a scene where she has visited and labored before -- but in a whole new world, outside and in, so the new book is fresh, vivid, and intense. Keep an extra light on if you stay up late reading this one.

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