Top critical review
Trapped in a Flashback!
August 25, 2003
Nevada Barr's primary character Ranger Anna Pigeon has always been neurotic. Some times more than other times and in the last several novels she seemed to finally be just a bit less annoyingly neurotic. Unfortunately, for most of this book, Anna is neurotic and stuck in the past in more ways than one.
As the book opens, Anna is temporarily supervising Fort Jefferson, on Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park off of Key West. The last supervisor of the park seems to have had a mental breakdown and is off on the mainland getting treatment after seeing ghosts and whatnot flitting around the fort. Anna has gone about as far as she can go in the Park Service to escape her own demons that haunt her by accepting this posting. She has taken the assignment so that she has time to think about a marriage proposal from Paul. Paul is still a minister, now recently divorced, and wants desperately to marry Anna. But he knows that her answer to pressure is to run as far as she can as fast as she can and has vowed to give her the time she needs to think about his offer. While she does love him, she isn't sure she is ready to once again try marriage as has been made abundantly clear several times in earlier books in this series.
Those issues remain for Anna and with little else to occupy her mind, she begins to think that she understands why the previous Supervisor went mad. Supervising a skeleton staff and very few visitors, Anna begins to look for something to occupy her mind instead of thinking about her life. Her sister Molly has sent to Anna to read a large packet of letters that were written to Anna's great grandmother, Peggy, from her sister Raffia who was married to a Captain station at the Fort shortly at the end of the Civil War. That same time saw the arrival of Dr. Samuel Mudd and Samuel Arnold after they were sentenced to prison time for their roles in the Lincoln assassination. Both men denied involvement.
Through a series of flashbacks in letter form, Anna begins to read of the heartbreak and struggle went through by Raffia during that time period. While that mystery occupies her mind, a modern day mystery involving mysterious boats at night and the near death of a Park Ranger occupies her waking thoughts. The stresses along with a series of other problems begin to take their toll on Anna and what is left of the skeleton staff. As she tries to figure out the present problems, the past continues to occupy more and more of her mental thoughts and before long; the veil between fantasy and reality for Anna becomes almost non-existent. Is she losing her mind or is she having help to crack and if so why?
Anna is at her most annoyingly neurotic during the first half of this four hundred page slow read which is something considering this is the tenth novel of the series. As she slowly loses her mind thanks to a plot device that is amazingly telegraphed like a neon sign, she sees ghosts and various apparitions. One is reminded of the many times James Lee Burke has used this same technique to great effect by way of his command of language and Nevada Barr does not come close in pulling the same effect.
Once she begins to regain her sanity and work the modern day case as well as the puzzle from the past, this novel improves tremendously. It ceases to wallow in the past on so many levels and instead moves forward steadily and with purpose. The story begins to take of with plenty of action and the many plot twists that have hallmarked her earlier work. But, one has to get through the first two hundred pages that are both literally and figuratively a "flashback" on many levels. It is ultimately worth the effort to read this book, but it is not Nevada Barr at her best. One hopes with several issues resolved apparently at the conclusion of this novel, Nevada Barr might once again bring back the Anna who was so good in her first book, Track of the Cat.