Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Recent years have seen a welcome increase in the number of female fictional sleuths who are neither stereotypical nor “clones” if you will of male sleuths. They’ve carved their own niche into the crime fiction world. Today, let’s meet one of this new breed, Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon. Let’s take a closer look at Pigeon’s first outing, Track of the Cat.
Anna Pigeon is a National Park Service ranger who in this novel has been assigned to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. One day, Anna discovers the body of fellow ranger Sheila Drury. Although she and Drury weren’t what you would call close friends, Pigeon is shocked by her find and immediately reports it. All of the initial evidence suggests that Drury was killed by a mountain lion, and that upsets Pigeon even more. She’s a true lover of animals and nature and she’s certain that there’ll be a wholesale slaughter of lions once the news gets out that a lion killed a human. But it’s not just her fondness for animals that makes Pigeon wonder about this death. Some of the evidence just doesn’t seem to add up to a lion kill. So Pigeon begins to ask questions. Soon enough, she faces resistance from several quarters. The authorities don’t want any more attention then necessary called to the death. The locals are only too happy to have an excuse to hunt lions (they feel that the park rangers are encroaching on their ranch land anyway). Pigeon even questions herself.
And yet, bit by bit, evidence suggests that more than one person might have wanted to kill Sheila Drury. Then there’s an attempt on Pigeon’s life. Someone lays a trap for her that nearly kills her. She’s just recovering from this trauma when there’s another death. It’s soon clear that something serious is going on at the park and Pigeon refuses to let the matter go. She continues to ask questions, get whatever evidence she can obtain and continue to look into the case.
In the end, Anna Pigeon finds out what happened to Sheila Drury. She also finds out some surprising things about some of her co-workers. And when she finds out who’s responsible for the murders and the attempt on her life, and most especially, what the motive is, she finds her own unique way of dealing with the culprit (and no, she doesn’t kill the murderer).
Several elements weave this story together. One of the most important ones is the country itself. The Guadalupe National Park is breathtakingly beautiful but potentially dangerous country, and Barr does a very effective job of placing the reader there:
“Cholla – the skinny cactus which grew up in angular, spine-covered branches – was beginning to bloom. Festive pink blossoms the size of teacups and looking for all the world like they had been fashioned from crepe paper enlivened the uncompromising cacti… prickly pear pads carried one two, ten yellow blooms and the grasses were rich with wildflowers.”
It’s easy to see that Pigeon loves this country and the animals that inhabit it.
Another important element in this novel is the character of Anna Pigeon herself. She’s recovering from the death of her husband Zach, and she has to cope with her sense of loss and grief. But she’s also a strong person who is not afraid of dealing with life on her own. She’s got plenty of faults; she drinks more than she should, she makes “snap judgements” at times and she’s not always very good at social interaction. In fact, she sometimes prefers the company of animals to the company of humans. She has her guard up all the time, even with those who support her and that can be off-putting. But she’s likeable and smart, and she arrives at her conclusions about the case by using her intelligence and her sense of the land and the animals.
There are other interesting characters in the novel, too. For instance, there’s Christina Walters, the clerk-typist in the park office, who has her own secrets to keep. She’s a single mother who’s a refugee from an unhappy marriage, so she has her share of personal “baggage,” but she’s not a stereotypical “tortured character.” She and Pigeon strike up a friendship in the wake of Drury’s death, and it’s interesting to see how they interact and to learn her backstory.
Pigeon’s sister Molly is also an interesting character. She’s a psychiatrist to whom Pigeon turns frequently, even when she doesn’t want to admit she’s in pain. What makes an interesting person is that she’s very, very human. She smokes, she admits her professional frustrations, and she gets impatient with Pigeon’s insistence on putting herself in danger to solve this case. She’s a rounded, developed character in her own right and also serves as an effective “mirror” to understand Pigeon’s character better.
Track of the Cat is not a light novel. But there is humour in it. Barr writes with a dry sense of humour that adds a light touch to the story. And her observations on other humans can be witty: For example, at one point, Pigeon is in the hospital recuperating from the attempt on her life:
“Mechanically Anna ate a color-coordinated meal consisting of the four basic food groups, all of which tasted pretty much the same. She asked the LVN – a high school girl with over-processed hair and a sweet, slightly vacant face – if the food was vacu-processed by Mattel. For her attempt at levity, Anna got an empty smile. However, the girl was willing to smuggle in a cup of coffee with honest-to-God caffeine so Anna forgave her, her shortcomings”
The mystery itself is intriguing. The deaths and other events that Pigeon investigates are related, but it’s not obvious at first exactly how. And there’s real suspense as Pigeon gets closer to the truth. The solution to the mystery is logical and Pigeon discovers the truth in a believable way. And yet the setting and characters are at least as important in this story as the mystery is. So is the very interesting look Barr gives us at the life of a National Park Service ranger.
Track of the Cat also has sends messages about preserving the land and the wildlife. Anna Pigeon loves animals and the land on which they live, and her passions are clear throughout the novel. But it’s to Barr’s credit that those messages don’t detract from the quality of the story; one doesn’t really feel “preached at” in this novel.
Track of the Cat is an outdoors mystery that takes place in a beautiful and wild setting. It features an interesting and likeable sleuth and some solid characterisation. But what’s your view? Have you read Track of the Cat? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 28 November/Tuesday 29 November – Hag’s Nook – John Dickson Carr
Monday 4 December/Tuesday 5 December – Simisola – Ruth Rendell
Monday 11 December/Tuesday 12 December – Blood Safari – Deon Meyer