Saturday, August 14, 2010

Nevada Barr, BURN (Anna Pigeon #16)

I always enjoy getting the e-previews of the New York Times book review section due to run each Sunday, released for e-reading a couple of days ahead of time. But when I noticed that Marilyn Stasio's Crime reviews would include Nevada Barr's new book, I resolutely left the e-mail unopened until this evening, after finishing reading the newest Ranger Anna Pigeon crime novel.

BURN opens with Anna still on leave, recovering from the disasters of her ranger work at Isle Royale in Winter Study. Actually, her recovery was supposed to start in the number 15, Borderline, but as usual, given a situation in which she was supposed to act like an ordinary citizen on vacation, Anna ran into danger and took added risks and nearly died for the people she cared about. So here she is again, struggling with whether she can even be "just a person" instead of a ranger -- yet wondering also, as she explores New Orleans without her beloved new husband Paul, whether she'll ever get that significant job back again.
Unquestionably, Anna was less crazy than she had been ... Coming off winter study on ISRO, Anna had been so crazy she had no idea how crazy she was. The intervening weeks had moved her a long way toward sanity. Now the black hole that had threatened to swallow her was a mere speck on her mental horizon. 
It would be great if Anna could act within the boundaries of that newfound sanity. Unfortunately, as the scorpion said when it stung to death the frog carrying it across the river, "It's my nature." And Anna's nature is to rush in and tackle the bad guys. Challenged by voodoo threats, pederasts, corrupt police, and smugglers of humans, she promises her husband Paul (by long-distance phone call) that she'll let him know if she's going to take any risks. But that's exactly what she can't seem to do. Nor can she "call for backup" (that call that so few TV investigators seem able to remember to make).

Barr slams the opening chapters with horror after horror, taking just about everything that could go wrong in an urban landscape and throwing it at Anna. Realistically, this National Parks ranger is seriously screwed up from chasing, being chased, killing, and being gravely wounded over and over again. So as she dashes into the New Orleans desperation, her repeated poor judgment is all too believable.

But does it make good reading? Or does it become what my mother would call "The Perils of Pauline" (an old-time serial in which the heroine is caught up in danger repeatedly)?

Fans of the earlier Anna Pigeon books who enjoyed exploring the National Parks and their wildlife through the ranger's career won't find much here to recall those books; the scene is relentlessly urban, gritty, and dire. Nor does Anna seem to achieve insight into her actions. She may in fact rescue some of the people in danger as the book concludes -- but the cost is so high that her soul is shriveling. As Anna says, "Scars on the outside simply kept score; it was the scars on the inside one had to watch out for." Whether Barr can lead us from this web of scars into a 17th volume that's worth all this struggle becomes the pressing issue for her series.

Oh yes, of course I enjoyed Stasio's review after I'd finished the book. Take a look, for a second point of view. And if you've read BURN, please do add your comments. And here's Nevada Barr's site, too, so you can look for her appearances and ask her some questions about this direction, yourself.

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