Nevada Barr’s mystery series featuring National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon is unusual among series featuring a female sleuth in that the novels do not fit neatly into any one genre of mystery and detective fiction. On one hand, Anna is certainly a kind of private investigator, hard-boiled in her self-imposed isolation from others as well as independent, for the most part, from family and romantic liaisons that limit her ability to move from park to park without consequence. Though she maintains connections with her psychologist sister Molly, her sister lives in New York City while Anna traipses from park to park across the United States. Indeed, the nature of the park service, as outlined in Barr’s Track of the Cat, suggests that most park workers do not stay in one park indefinitely so as not to become too invested in one area. Though Anna goes to New York when Molly becomes gravely ill in the seventh novel in the series, Liberty Falling (1999), neither Molly’s illness in this novel nor Anna’s marriage to local sheriff and minister Paul Davidson in Hard Truth (2005) limit Anna’s involvement in solving crimes nor the necessary traveling. Even when Anna falls in love—twice during the series, first with Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent Frederick Stanton, who will eventually pair with her sister Molly, and second with Davidson—she resists putting herself in any emotionally needy situation. Furthermore, with Anna’s general cynicism, she can maintain a level of objectivity that serves her well when investigating crimes. Like her hard-boiled predecessors, Anna regularly gets shot, beat up, pushed down mountains, and kidnapped without deterring her from resuming the investigation the next day.
Although she has the personality and many other qualities of a hard-boiled private investigator, Anna’s job actually involves her in quasi-police work. Though she often has to concede to local police authorities or FBI operatives while investigating a case, her position in the park allows her to carry weapons and enforce the laws of the parks. In this regard, Barr’s novels suggest the police procedural. Anna must follow the protocol of her job regarding the gathering of evidence and the interrogation of suspects. Though her authority is sometimes undermined by those higher in command in the park service, Anna, unlike private investigators, is a central character at a crime scene.
Despite her tough demeanor and her savvy police skills, Anna Pigeon often approaches crime as would an amateur sleuth. Although no one pays her to discover the truth behind a crime, Anna goes beyond her park ranger responsibilities to solve mysteries. These explorations manage to put her into extraordinarily dangerous situations without much forethought or management on her part. For example, she might be taking a walk late at night when she discovers a clue that might lead to a killer. Instead of calling for backup or pursuing the lead in the morning, Anna might walk into a trap. Furthermore, she often seems ill-equipped to handle these emergencies even though she inevitably triumphs by the end of the novel.
Barr’s use of national parks as settings for her works allows a level of integrity often missing from series that involve an amateur detective. Though private investigators and police officers might have a never-ending caseload that could be the basis for multiple novels, park rangers typically do not see crime on such a scale. The very nature of the itinerant park ranger, however, allows Barr to transport Anna Pigeon to a variety of new settings with new possibilities for crimes. Because the crimes occur at different parks, Anna’s repeated investigation of so much murderous activity does not strain credulity.
The national park settings also add a further dimension to Barr’s tightly woven, often psychological...
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