Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Review: BURN

BURN by Nevada Barr (Minotaur, 2010)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Anna Pigeon, a Ranger with the National Park Service, is newly married but on administrative leave from her job as she recovers from the traumas of the past couple of months. While the physical wounds have healed, the emotional ones are still healing. With her new husband back at work, Anna decides to go and stay with an old friend from the Park Service, Geneva, who works as a singer at the New Orleans Jazz NHP. 

Anna isn't in town long before she crosses paths with a tenant of Geneva's, a creepy guy named Jordan. She discovers what seems to be an attempt to place a curse on her, a gruesomely killed pigeon marked with runic symbols; and begins to slowly find traces of very dark doings in the heart of post-Katrina New Orleans. Tied up in all of this is Jordan, who is not at all what he appears to be; a fugitive mother accused of killing her husband and daughters in a fire; and faint whispers of unpleasant goings-on in the heart of the slowly recovering city.

I've been meaning to read Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon series for a while, as I'm a big fan of US national parks, and like crime fiction set in rural areas. The idea of a series set in a different national park each time, with a park ranger as the investigator, was right up my alley. So when I saw BURN on the shelf at my local library when I was back in New Zealand on holiday recently, I grabbed it.

Bluntly, it may not have been the best example of Barr's series, representatively, in that it's actually set in New Orleans (there's a city-based area run by the National Park Service), and BURN veers into some quite dark territory involving child trafficking and other urban nastiness. As a reader I didn't mind that, as I've visited New Orleans a couple of times and find it a fascinating setting, and I'm comfortable with crime writers delving into the darker social issues of our times. But I think for long-time Barr fans, this book may have been a bit of an anomaly compared to the rest of the series.

That would explain the very mixed reviews of the book I saw online, once I'd finished reading it. I was left with a similar mixed view, not because of the urban setting or sexually-charged crimes, but in that I enjoyed the book, found it flowed along and kept me interested, but I never felt it kicked up to the higher levels of crime fiction I enjoy. It was just good, alright, worth reading, not exceptional.

Barr creates some fascinating characters - it would be hard not to with New Orleans the setting - as ancient beliefs and criminal commerce are all entwined. Even though it was my first dip in the water of the Anna Pigeon series (and is the 16th book in the series), I found it fairly easy to get a gauge on Anna and where she is at, life-wise. I'm sure longtime readers may pick up subtler character development, if there, but there was enough backstory for newbies like me to understand what had gone on before the events in this book, and had led Anna to take some time out in the Big Easy.

It's a good solid book that won't have me racing out to read another Nevada Barr book immediately, in terms of queue-jumping my large TBR pile, but has me intrigued enough to read her again in future. I'm keen to see how some of the books set in the more remote national parks may compare.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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