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Anna Pigeon, Forest Ranger: My Unlikely New Favorite Detective

Sorry—I refuse to pick a single favorite detective.  I have been hooked on mysteries for almost as long as I’ve been able to read.  But I can identify the newest and most unlikely addition to the list:  Anna Pigeon.  She’s a forest ranger.  More precisely:  A law enforcement ranger with the National Park Service.

Anna is not an obvious choice for me.  I discovered her when I made my first visit to Yosemite National Park—two years ago, after I had lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1997.  I am embarrassed to admit it took me a decade to get there—but that will give you an idea of how outdoorsy I am.  

Normally, my idea of an outdoor adventure is walking for hours around a big city.  Or hiking to a bookstore.  Or going to a music festival.   Or doing an outdoor gig--like playing with Sauce Piquante  tomorrow at the Westbrae Gardens in Berkeley.  What can I say?  I'm not a "roughing it" kind of girl. 

So Yosemite wasn't my idea.  I ended up there as part of a retreat, put on by the school where my husband worked at the time.  We didn’t camp—thank heaven!  (I got my fill of camping when I was a child.  It was the only way my family could afford to take vacations.)  We were part of a large group of families staying in Curry Village, a vast expanse of tent cabins designed to allow affordable stays in the park.  The school’s staff stayed in the more solid cabins—modest, but with real walls instead of canvas.

Yosemite was everything it was supposed to be.  Breathtaking.  Overwhelming.  I won’t go into details—but let’s just say I’ve become a belated convert.  Since that first visit, my husband and I have gone back on our own.

But even with all that stunning natural beauty around me, I couldn’t go for an entire three-day weekend without finding a bookstore—or something close to it.  So I spent some time in the book section of the one of the gift shops—and that’s where I met Anna Pigeon.

As I was browsing the natural history books, I discovered a paperback called High Country (2004).  A mystery—set in Yosemite, according to the blurb on the back.  I’d never heard of the author, Nevada Barr (yes, that’s her real name), or the series.  But it seemed like a nice souvenir—though probably a lightweight reading choice.  Or so I thought.

Once I started the book, I couldn’t put it down.  Since then, I’ve been hooked.

There are fifteen books in the Anna Pigeon series, starting with Track of the Cat, which won the 1994 Anthony for best first novel.  Each is set in a different National Park.  The latest, coming out in a few months, is set in New Orleans.  In the past, I used to devour a new mystery series—and then become saturated, sometimes in the middle of a book.  So now I take it slowly.  I have read about half the series.

The Anna Pigeon books are well written and full of suspense.  Nevada Barr does a wonderful job of conveying the particularities of the varied natural settings.  The plots are intricate, but not too hard to follow.  But, as always, it comes down to the character of the detective.

So what is it about Anna?  She’s a complicated woman.  She’s tough, feisty, and physically agile.  She knows how to use a gun.  She seems to get beaten up with some regularity, in the course of her adventures.  She’s nothing like me—or anyone I know.

But consider the rest:  She’s a woman of a certain age, who grows older in the course of the books.  She is physically small.  In the recent books, she’s in her fifties, and she wears her long graying hair in a braid.

Anna doesn’t have a sidekick—or even a regular lover, at least in most of the books.  She does like sex, and she has an on-again/of-again thing with an FBI agent.  Her closest friend is her older sister, a psychiatrist in New York.  They often speak by phone.

Anna is haunted by a past loss:  the death of her young husband, an actor, who died in a car accident.  Maybe that’s why she’s a loner now—and why she drifts dangerously close to alcoholism.

Like all the best detectives, she is passionately committed to her own vision of the truth—and to making things right.  In Anna’s case, this involves solving conventional mysteries—usually murders—but in the context of environmental stewardship.

The author, Nevada Barr, has worked as a forest ranger.  Her portraits of the National Parks—and of life as a ranger—ring very true.   I heard her speak last fall, when I presented my own book at the Louisiana Book Festival.  She drew one of the biggest crowds.  She is a small, lovely woman of a certain age—chic, graying.  No weapons in sight.  She didn’t even wear her ranger uniform.  

Here’s her website:  www.nevadabarr.com

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Here are a few other favorite detectives, whose creators also capture the nuances of their particular worlds:

Sarah Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawki in Chicago; Les Roberts’ Milan Jacovich, a Slovenian-American cop in Cleveland; James Lee Burke’s Cajun P.I Dave Robicheaux; Julie Smith’s Skip Langdon in New Orleans; Jonathan Kellerman’s psychologist Alex Delaware; Red Room author Cara Black’s Aimee Leduc in Paris.

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Anna just got married!

Just started another one, toward the end of the series, Hard Truth (2005). Seems Anna just got married! But she was offered a better position in another National Park--in another state. She and her new husband (a local sheriff) are both committed to their careers. So, as the book opens, she's just moved out of state and is hoping this commuter marriage idea works out. Of course, she's distracted by a some missing teenagers who just turned up, probably victims of a religious cult...

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