Deep South: An Anna Pigeon Novel
The handwritten sign on the tree said it all: REPENT. For Anna Pigeon, this should have been reason enough to turn back for her beloved Mesa Verde. Instead she heads for the Natchez Trace Parkway and the promotion that awaits her. Almost immediately, she finds herself in the midst of controversy: as the new district ranger, she faces resentment so extreme her ability to do her job may be compromised, and her life may very well be in danger. But all thoughts of personal safety are set aside with the discovery of a young girl’s body in a country cemetery, a sheet around her head, a noose around her neck.
The kudzu is thick and green, the woods dark and full of secrets. And the ghosts of violence hover as Anna struggles for answers to questions that, perhaps, should never be asked. Deep South proves that, “like the parks and monuments she writes of, Nevada Barr should be declared a national treasure” (The Bloomsbury Review).
After her urban adventures on New York’s Ellis Island in Liberty Falling, park ranger Anna Pigeon has finally “heeded the ticking of her bureaucratic clock” and signed on for a promotion in the boonies: district ranger on the Natchez Trace Parkway. Anna’s mental images of Mississippi come from black-and-white stock photos from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, so it’s not surprising that she finds it beautiful but strange, its residents caught in a teased-hair, fried-food time warp. But she’s got more than an unhealthy diet to worry about—as the first female district ranger on the Trace, she immediately encounters more than a few good ol’ boys and local miscreants who resent her authority, especially after a 17-year-old beauty is murdered on a booze-soaked prom night near the Trace, her head covered with a KKK-style sheet.
There are plenty of reasons her friends and family might have wanted Danielle Posey dead, ranging from her $40,000 insurance policy to jealousy to flat-out insanity. Anna wonders whether the sheet’s a red herring, but she can’t dismiss it entirely. Though the local culture’s no longer built around segregation, racism still exists at a deep level that Anna finds unsettling. Both Danielle Posey and the prime suspect—her boyfriend—are white, but Danielle had secrets her friends won’t reveal. Still, no one else appears to be in danger, until a prankster—or could it be a murderer?—sets an alligator loose in Anna’s garage (nearly killing her faithful black Lab, Taco) and a local preacher commits suicide.
With the help of the handsome local sheriff, Paul Davidson, Anna pulls together clues from local history, Civil War reenactors, and the Mississippi mud and kudzu. Anna Pigeon’s one tough bird—she survives not only a little alligator wrestling but also a brutal attack that leads her to the truth of what happened to Danielle Posey and why. What’s most fascinating is how much of her famous emotional shield she lets slip in the process. —Barrie Trinkle
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I’ve mentioned before that Nevada Barr’s novels are rich with old-fashioned literary values. Too much mystery fiction today depends on gimmicks of one kind or another—chapters that are 31 words long; looping italicised locutions to indicate the mind of the killer; totally dramatic presentations with virtually no narrative, as if the reader would be put off by it.
Barr reminds me of the literary masters of the past because she takes a wonderfully formal approach to her fiction. She plots extremely well, her scenes inform the senses as well as the mind and heart, and she knows the importance of back story to the essence of good fiction. We are what we were. In addition, she understands pacing. Before the place description (which in Deep South is especially gorgeous) gets too long, she alternates it with some short, punchy humorous scenes. And if the book threatens to get static, she gives us one of her superb action scenes.
Deep South is set just where its title says. It’s a little more sociological than usual—Barr has a nice eye for the differences above and below the Mason-Dixon line—and a little darker in the way the central crime relates to the theme of the novel. And, as always, Barr gives us a workaday sense of ranger life and the pleasures of bonding with nature. Barr gets better and better; richer, cleverer, deeper, and ever more uniquely herself with each book. In an eminently readable and unpretentious way, she is moving her novels ever closer to mainstream. —Ed Gorman