RogerBW's Blog

Flashback, Nevada Barr 08 October 2015

2003 mystery, eleventh in Barr's Anna Pigeon series, murder mysteries in US National Parks. At Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, seventy miles off the end of Florida, Anna replaces a chief ranger who went mad. A boat explosion and anonymous body parts are troubling enough; but then Anna starts to see ghosts…

That's only half the story, quite literally; even-numbered chapters are letters from Anna's great-great-aunt Raffia, recently rediscovered and being read by Anna, talking about her time at the fort when it was used as a prison shortly after the Civil War. So in effect this is two short books in one; there's only very limited crossover between them, and each chapter tends to end on a cliffhanger. One could probably read the first chapter, all the even-numbered ones, then all the odd-numbered ones and the epilogue, and not find that either story suffered unduly.

The classic failure mode with a double narrative is that one of them is more interesting than the other, and that happens here: Raffia's story is dripping with period detail, clearly the result of extensive research, but to the mystery fan it's pretty clear roughly what's going on, and there's no compelling problem to be solved beyond filling in the details.

Because so much of the book is given over to that story, though, the main events seem underdeveloped (for example there is almost no mention of visitors to the park, which gives up an opportunity for red herrings). Everything more or less makes sense in the end, but some of it depends on personality quirks that aren't at all signalled before the revelation. The villainous plot seems unnecessarily convoluted.

On the other hand the characterisation is solid, with the stars being the World's Greatest Law Enforcement Officer (in a minor job on a dead-end posting) and the wife who's remade her life in support of his mythology, and the maybe-trans presumed-lesbian couple who keep the lighthouse. (And they aren't just written as a couple, either; they're distinct individuals whose roles wouldn't work if they were swapped.) There are some rough spots, such as Anna "hoping Cuban Hispanics had the same cultural love of family and children she'd noticed in Mexican-American women", but also some excellent action sequences, particularly on a couple of highly dangerous dives.

As for other long-running characters in the series, Anna has run to this isolated island because her boyfriend has proposed to her. That's entirely in keeping with her character as we've seen it develop from the earliest books, but it does mean he's no more than an occasional voice on a phone. Anna's sister Molly supplies the letters, and Anna contacts her when she thinks she may be going as mad as the previous chief ranger, but she's also mostly absent.

I'm still enjoying this series; I think the split narrative is a failure but Barr remains a compelling writer. Followed by High Country.

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