A Journalist's Archive

Track of the Cat
Nevada Barr
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          It’s November, time to get moving on that holiday shopping list. This month I’m reviewing a book that would make a perfect gift for the mystery genre lovers on your list. “Track of the Cat,” by Nevada Barr, is the first in a series of 18 mysteries, all of which take place in a different “national park.” So if the recipient of this book enjoys it as much as I did, they can continue reading Barr’s mysteries, while getting to know the landscape of some of the finest places in this country.
          To say Barr’s background has significantly impacted her writing is an understatement. Since she works as a park ranger, she knows how the system functions, and the characters in the stories are no doubt a compilation of her associates. Combining those factors with her vivid imagination and ability to create a complex web of clues, Barr created an award-winning mystery series praised by Tony Hillerman and other mystery writers.
          As protagonist Anna Pigeon views her surroundings in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, she reflects on its other worldliness. The Texan landscape is a mixture of mountains and desert, a far cry from her former home, the concrete jungle of New York City. Yet oddly enough, Anna feels more at home in her new environment than she ever did in Manhattan. But after three days of trekking across the harsh terrain, looking for signs of mountain lion activity, she yearns for a few advantages civilization has to offer. It shouldn’t be long now before she’s sipping a glass of wine and enjoying the company of her boyfriend, Rogelio.
          But first she must traverse the boulder field of the Middle McKittrick, and then make her way through a narrow canyon scoured out centuries ago by torrential floods. What remains is a deep trough, with towering sandstone walls on either side. “Not a good place to be caught during the Texas monsoons in July and August,” she thinks. Lucky for her, the heavy rains will not appear for another month. Still, the smell of water permeates the dry air. In front of her lies what appears to be an anomaly in this desert landscape, a basin filled with crystal-clear water, surrounded by razor-sharp saw grass.
          Approaching the pool, another smell assails her, the unmistakable odor of death. Seeking to discover if it’s a “lion kill,” she wades into the grass. There she finds the body of Sheila Drury, “the Dog Canyon Ranger.”
          Knowing both radio and cell phone reception is nonexistent deep inside the canyon, Anna scales the slick-rock walls until she reaches a height where she can contact Paul Decker, “the Frijole District Ranger.” Informing him of the situation, she’s upset to learn no help will be available until morning. Unwilling to leave Drury’s body to scavengers, Anna’s only option is to hunker down and wait. It will be a long and sleepless night.
          Officially, Drury’s death is attributed to a cougar attack. “Nothing suspicious about it,” officials from the Park Service claim. However, as Anna recalls the scene, she believes the state of Drury’s body makes a mountain lion attack extremely unlikely. Taking it upon herself, she begins her own investigation.
          There is a limited list of suspects. Will it be Craig Eastern, known to other park rangers as being a little different; or Manny Mankins, “a wiry naturalist,” whose strength far exceeds what his slim frame projects? In juxtaposition to Mankins is Karl Johnson, a burly man who reminds Anna of “the quintessential ogre in children’s fairy tales,” who gently cares for the park’s horses and mules. But, Anna muses, Johnson was recently demoted from superintendent of Dog Canyon; and he wasn’t happy about being replaced by Drury. Next is Harland Roberts, who puts his previous military training to good use as supervisor of the park’s maintenance department. Added to the list are a few local ranchers, who despise the federal protection accorded to the mountain lions roaming the area. Could one of them be the murderer?
          Then again, women can kill too, a fact Anna cannot afford to overlook. Cheryl Light, new to the team, is “a woodsy type” who can hold her own in most battles. And Christina Walters, a clerk typist, has a sexual orientation that may give her a motive for killing Drury.
          As in most mysteries, one death leads to another, with twists and turns that put the protagonist into life-threatening situations. In between the suspense, readers get a chance to decompress when Anna interacts with Rogelio, or phones her sister, Molly, a psychologist in New York.
          Read Barr’s biographic information on her website, and it’s obvious she modeled Anna after herself, at least as far as career choices go. The great thing about fiction writing is how a talented author can use their everyday experience and enhance it with knowledge of a setting, while creating a strong protagonist that is everything the author ever wanted to be. Thus, Anna Pigeon is smart, resourceful, and fearless, which is why she is featured throughout the entire series. But best of all, Anna has a unique sense of justice that can only be tolerated in the world of fiction.
          Colorado mystery buffs will be happy to learn Barr features Mesa Verde National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park in two other novels. While her “Anna Pigeon” series can be read in any order, I suggest starting at the beginning with “Track of the Cat.”

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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