In The Spotlight: Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat

Hello, All,

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

24 Comments

Filed under Nevada Barr, Track of the Cat

24 responses to “In The Spotlight: Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat

  1. You’ve used this novel as an example in a few of your posts and the snippets I read were enough to put it on my list. It was great to read about it ‘in the spotlight’, thank you 🙂

  2. I haven’t read it. Is the Guadaloupe Mountains National Park a real place or is it fictional? I like the voice of the writer. The character comes off sweet with a touch of sarcasm. Calling the food Mattel is so funny. Thanks for the review.

    • Clarissa – Actually, the Guadalupe Mountains National Park is indeed a real place. I like that touch about the novel because it lends an air of authenticity to the story. And I know exactly what you mean about the voice of Anna Pigeon. I like her voice quite a lot, too :-). I really do recommend the novel.

  3. kathy d.

    This is an excellent series. From reading what you posted I’m reminded of how well Nevada Barr does in not only developing a very interesting, capable, smart — and human — protagonist, but in putting a reader in a particular location. The “sense of place” i s half of what makes her series an excellent one.
    I have vicariously “traveled” to so many national parks, which are all different and all well-described. Barr’s books — and the excellently developed sense of place — are a big draw to many of us who care about the environment.
    These paragraphs are so good that it makes me want to reread some of these books — but, alas, there’s the TBR pile and list — and the limits of real time and our bodies, which do require sleep, and other annoyances which interfere with our reading.
    In addition to the geographical descriptions, Anna Pigeon is quite a character, with lots of good qualities, but she is human and has flaws. Some of them show up in later books.
    I have read nearly all of these books, and a few of the later books aren’t quite as well-done. In fact, a friend who is a Barr fan told me that the most recent book, “Burn,” descends into horrible violence, and she was disappointed, as she likes this series.
    But I’d pick up a Barr book any time if I wanted to escape to a part of this country I’ll only visit vicariously.

    • Kathy – You are so right I think about the way that Barr describes the beautiful national park environment. The reader feels really “there.” And because Pigeon works in different parks as the series goes on, we get to “travel” to different places. And yes, Anna Pigeon is a wonderful character. She’s smart, funny, flawed, but also a good soul. And she’s tough without trying to “prove she’s one of the guys.”
       
      You’re not, by the way, the first person to mention that Burn gets very, very violent. It does. But Barr really is a talented writer…

  4. sue rosly

    I really enjoyed this review. It’s a long time since I read Nevada Barr and I did like her heroine and the stunning settings which result from Anna’s job a a Park ranger. I must go back and re read.

    • Sue – Thank you :-). The Anna Pigeon novels are, in my opinion, so very well-written and they have such a clear sense of place and character. Admittedly some are better than others. But all of them have those two strong qualities.

  5. Yes I agree with your commentators that I fancy reading Nevada Barr (great name) after your reviews.

    • Sarah – I like that name, too! And I think you’d like this one. The mystery isn’t as complicated as, say, a “locked room” mystery. But it’s also not plainly obvious, and the setting is magnificent in my opinion. I do like the Anna Pigeon character, too.

  6. Ann

    I remember reading one of these books, but don’t know why I didn’t pick up any more. They definitely put the reader in a beautiful setting.
    Ann

    • Ann – Isn’t it interesting how we read a book and even get excited about it, but then don’t follow up with other novels? I think sometimes there are just so many good books out there…

  7. Patti Abbott

    This is one of only two books of hers I have read but it was good and I like the idea of moving to various national parks.

  8. I enjoyed Track of the Cat. As a matter of fact, I’ve enjoyed all of the Anna Pigeon novels I’ve read so far. I love the settings Nevada Barr chooses as much as her outstanding plotting.

    • Pat – I’m so glad you like these novels. They fill a very interesting niche in crime fiction, and I really do like both the setting and the Anna Pigeon character.

  9. Great post, Margot. I’ve noted your inclusion of these books before, and given that I’ve now read all the Joe Pickett series by C J Box to date, I would like to try a Nevada Barr. I have a similar book on my kindle which I downloaded after reading a review on your blog, so I had better read that one first, though! Hope you are having a great time, by the way. Glad they have the Intenet in kiwi land. 😉

    • Maxine – Thanks for the kind words :-). I do hope you’ll like some of Nevada Barr’s work. My personal preference is for the earlier novels; I have to agree with some critiques of her more recent work i.e. that Barr pushes the “violence envelope” a bit. But other than that, it’s a terrific series I think. Anna Pigeon shares Joe Pickett’s love of nature and animals and his passion for doing the right thing. She’s a good character. And yes, I’m quite glad, too, that there’s Internet here in New Zealand. How else would I keep up with you and all of the other brilliant bloggers I’m honoured to know? 🙂

  10. As you’ve no doubt noticed, I’m a fanatic Nevada Barr fan who has read all of her books. Like you, I like the varied settings due to her assignments to different parks. Also, she has matured as the series has gone on and has even married which adds more complication to her investigations. Eventually she puts alcohol behind her as well, but still relies on her level-headed sister when things get hinky. She is now retired from the National Park Service and lives in New Orleans. Her latest book, which I reviewed recently, The Rope, is a prequel to the series. I’m wondering now what’s next.

    • Barbara – Yes, I did remember that you’re a Nevada Barr fan. And I really like the way that Anna Pigeon has matured over the years. As you say, she does learn to live without alcohol and she evolves both personally and professionally. I like that about her character; the changes in her life seem to come more or less naturally.

    • Barbara – Yes, I did remember that you’re a Nevada Barr fan. And I really like the way that Anna Pigeon has matured over the years. As you say, she does learn to live without alcohol and she evolves both personally and professionally. I like that about her character; the changes in her life seem to come more or less naturally.

  11. I didn’t indicate when I switched from writing about the character to the author. It’s Nevada Barr who is now retired, etc.

  12. Pingback: Book review: Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr | Petrona

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