Winter Study, by Nevada Barr. Penguin Books. Paperback. 2008. $10.
I’m easily impressed by authors who integrate real, local geography into their novels. The idea of being able to “go there” and walk in the footsteps of the protagonist is a romantic notion of mine, I suppose. James Lee Burke fuses southern Louisiana geography into his Dave Robicheaux crime novels; F. Paul Wilson’s “Repairman Jack” takes care of his arcane business in and around New York City, with some escapades crossing over into Newark, New Jersey and the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey.
Nevada Barr’s heroine, Anna Pigeon, gets to change her geography frequently. She is a National Park Ranger (and transient detective) who is often reassigned to interesting places, national parks, to support academic research or park projects. Anna Pigeon has worked in a variety of locales before being posted to Isle Royale National Park (NPS), found in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (map.)
In “Winter Study,” Ranger Pigeon (that sounds like a species of bird) is posted to Isle Royale. Researchers on the island are studying the dynamics of wolf populations, and Pigeon’s chore is learn what she can in the event her home national park in Colorado is populated with wolves. Seems like a nice, fascinating assignment, right? Who would not want to work, study, and live with the living relatives of Man’s Best Friend? Despite my extreme dislike for cold weather, I personally would jump at this opportunity.
Pigeon’s arrival is not necessarily welcomed. The academics conducting the research see her presence as a necessary evil, the constant gaze of the federal government. Her presence may have been the most unsettling for all researchers had not an agent of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) already been on-site. DHS feels the island is a security risk due to its remoteness and proximity to the Canadian border, ripe for exploitation by nefarious people seeking to bring disaster to the United States (like we aren’t capable of doing that ourselves. But, I diverge.)
Soon after her arrival, a winter storm moves in, preventing anyone from leaving the island. Then, the first researcher turns up dead. And, not just dead, but ripped apart. Wolves are blamed, and the DHS officer is salivating to close the research down and shutdown all access to the island. Coupled with the death is the appearance of an enigmatic message, a frosted message scrawled upon a window pane as the storm front causes the air temperature to drop.
The death is not taken well by the researchers. They are a close-knit group, living together in close quarters, and fairly respectful of each others talents and experience. And, something about the ferocity of the attack doesn’t ring true to those familiar with wolf behavior and pack dynamics. Was this an accidental death caused by hunger among a pack of wolves? An issue of territory? Also, a set of anomalous wolf prints, solitary and uncommonly large have been seen in the vicinity. Was a large, rouge wolf responsible. But, the mysterious message discovered the night of the death leads some to believe the research was murdered, murdered by someone sharing their cabin.
The prose is tight and consistent. The unfolding of events did not force me to suspend belief in order to enjoy the novel. My primary complaint is the pace of action. 100 pages into the novel, no one had died yet, no human, anyway. A wolf had been killed, and the pace of the initial chapters was slow, related to posthumous examination of the body. I admit, I might not be the most patient; I like to be engaged in criminal action within the first couple of chapters. What kept me mildly interested was injections of humor, characters sharing their stories academic drama, and details about wolf and moose populations.
Having only read one Anna Pigeon novel (I have another on my “to read” shelf at home), I was left wondering if the author shares the same disdain as some of her characters for federal agencies who may not have the same interest in protecting the environment as the National Park Service. Some of the characters hammer the DHS security officer, and Barr makes him completely unlikable, to boot. Readers may wonder if the animus directed by the academics at DHS is simply part of this story, or part of a larger thematic undercurrent persisting throughout all novels. Barr was a National Park officer for a few years. Her experiences and personal feelings may be rendered, at least in part, by Anna Pigeon.
Once I got the first 100 pages under my frames (not really under my belt; “belts” are for food. And, I just got my new transition trifocals) action accelerated to about what I’ve come to expect from other crime authors. Nevada Barr has won numerous awards, the Agatha Christie Award (link) and the Anthony Boucher Award (link) for mystery writing to name the most prestigious, so my criticisms will probably be dismissed. I found the first 33% of the book hard to get through, honestly. Not enough to put me off reading another novel featuring the same character. As I’ve said in other reviews, I give an author two books to rope me in. This novel was lent to me by a co-worker, was lauded as being “very good,” and contained copious amount of geography (it does.) The locator map opening the story was very well done by cartographer Meighan Cavanaugh.
Based on my co-worker’s recommendation to me, yes, there is a good chance of the vast majority of mystery readers enjoying this book, and enjoying the writing well enough to read more of Nevada Barr. I have to say, to Barr’s credit, I did not see the ending coming. She provided an interesting philosophical twist to how those involved in criminal actions might be managed. I don’t want to give away any details, but I did enjoy Ranger Pigeon’s pragmatism.