11 July 2011

Burned by Barr's Improbabilities

Many years ago, long before I dreamt up the Heart of Gold awards, I stopped reading Sue Grafton's novels about the adventures of Kinsey Millhone. I think it was around G is for Gumshoe (1989) or H is for Homicide (1991). Grafton's private eye was improbably doing dumb things and improbably surviving attacks by bad guys. It was too much fantasy for me.

Before the little California girls flew home, I picked up another of the birthday books from our family book pusher. (Thanks, Mary.) This was a Nevada Barr book, Burn.

This book earns a couple Heart of Gold awards. Usually, improbablities leave me cold. I like stories and I like realism. I am not keen on superheroes in an otherwise realistic environment. Maybe I should give Burn some kind of superhero award too. A Green Lantern award for improbable superhero?

Well, the improbabilities in Burn could power The Heart of Gold across the universe and back several times (I know that's an oxymoron in Douglas Adams' universe). One of the biggest improbabilities is that Barr's hero, U. S. National Park ranger Anna Pigeon, is a superhero in an otherwise normal universe. At least in modern Superman's "world" there are super villains to contend with. (I don't recall super villains in the 1950's Superman of my youth, but that's another issue.) And then there are the scenes where straight-laced, uptight Ranger Pigeon goes undercover as a hooker in New Orleans' French Quarter. And she doesn't get tagged as a female impersonater. Nor does she get approached by any Johns.

And Barr resorts to a plot device often used by mystery writers: sending her main character off on an investigation she has no duty to follow and one that's far outside her purview. I see that most often in TV scripts, but it's here, right out in public. In fact, Ranger Pigeon is supposedly in New Orleans recovering emotionally and physically from her last adventure. Instead she decides to jump into situations she knows little about and without any consultation with people she loves and respects (like her husband and her sister).

I've really enjoyed most of Barr's mystery-thrillers. As escapist lit, she does a good job of story telling.

There are two stories in Burn which merge about half way through the book. I enjoyed the separate stories more than the single joined story. Once Anna Pigeon got involved with murder suspect on the lam from half-way across the country, things went downhill. I read the second half of the book wondering how Barr was going to pull all her irons out the fires. Her methods were improbable.

My unsolicited advice to Nevada Barr is to send her ranger back into the arms of her sheriff-preacher husband and find out how the two of them can more realistically work together. And don't neglect to have Ranger Pigeon's psychiatrist sister come for a visit. In my mind each of those people offers needed balance for the Anna Pigeon character (and stories about her).

Have you read Burn? Or another of Barr's novels? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

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