When Nevada Barr visited the store recently, I was surprised that she attracted more interest than Sara Paretsky. And Barr is definitely at her peak, while Paretsky may have crested her wave – but Barr’s debt to Paretsky is nevertheless a large and noticeable one. Her Park Ranger sleuth, Anna Pigeon, shares many of V.I. Warshawski’s loner qualities and stubborn sense of what’s right. Paretsky can write rings around Barr in terms of complex plotting, but Barr is doing something very interesting with Anna – something I enjoyed very much – she’s letting her age. In this novel, Anna is hanging out undercover as a waitress at an exclusive Yosemite resort and the twenty-somethings she’s living with are making her feel old and invisible. She gripes about turning 50, about the fact that camping isn’t her first choice for a way to spend the night anymore, about having to live in a dorm, and she’s mellowed enough to have a fiancé. These are not only good developments, they are rounding out Anna as a character and making her more believable. And Anna Pigeon is definitely what brings people to this series – that, and a chance to visit a new National Park in each novel.
In High Country, Anna is in Yosemite, one of the most famous of all National Parks – the one most people think of when they think of the National Park system. The writing here is infused with dread and confinement – Anna feels she’s stuck in a fog drenched trench (a geographic peculiarity of her location), and when she finally goes into the “high country”, it’s as though she’s been enticing and teasing the reader for this special, Nevada Barr style trademark moment. Anna’s visit to the high country is long, painful and memorable – and contains one of the more gruesomely realistic scenes of violence I’ve recently encountered in a mystery novel. Because I wasn’t expecting it, I found it more powerful and ultimately moving – and Barr has a point to make about the dark side that probably lurks inside all of us. It certainly lurks inside Anna, and it’s graphically displayed. Because of this, I found High Country to be one of the more satisfying of Barr’s books, and one that I think might linger longest in my memory (though the cave scenes in Blind Descent are also indelible). The plot – Anna is undercover looking for four missing park employees, who apparently have nothing in common with each other – appears, like all good mystery stories, to be unsolvable. Luckily, Anna Pigeon is on the case.