Something’s gone missing in Nevada Barr’s latest Anna Pigeon mystery: Acadia National Park.
Welcome to Maine, Anna Pigeon. We’ve been hoping you’d pay us a visit. For those of you unfamiliar, Anna is the taciturn ranger-sleuth at the center of crime novelist Nevada Barr’s series of best-selling mysteries set in America’s national parks. In Barr’s 19th book, Boar Island (Minotaur Books; hardcover, 384 pages. $26.99), Anna travels to Acadia National Park for a 21-day detail as acting chief ranger, bringing with her one unsolved case of cyber bullying and soon becoming the target of creepy identical twin sisters from Bar Harbor.
Barr, a former law enforcement ranger herself, has created an unusual protagonist for the wilderness adventure genre. For starters, Anna is a middle-aged woman. She’s independent and strong, but she also has real-life vulnerabilities, like once-fluid joints that now creak in betrayal, and a physique that, no matter how fit, is no match for a big, male perpetrator. Moreover, Anna’s career choice has less to do with a passion for policing than a preference for the company of nature over that of humans. As such, the job is a continual source of tension, forcing Anna to routinely engage with people doing the sorts of stupid, careless things that make her want to disappear into the backcountry. And then there are the people who come along every now and then to try to kill her.
As likeably prickly as Anna is, and as grippingly suspenseful as Barr’s plots often are, they are not the best things about the Anna Pigeon series. Place is.
Anna has patrolled on horseback the hot desert of Guadalupe Mountains National Park in west Texas (Track of the Cat) and dived to the icy depths of Lake Superior in Isle Royale National Park (A Superior Death). With their vivid, evocative portrayals of place and culture, the books are captivating windows on some of the country’s most fascinating and dramatic environments. That’s why we’ve longed for an Anna Pigeon mystery set in Acadia National Park.
So how does Barr do with Acadia?
Not well, unfortunately. Other than the Atlantic Ocean, Barr gives scant attention to the natural and manmade features that define Acadia: there’s no Cadillac Mountain, no Precipice, no Bubbles, no carriage roads. Bar Harbor is reduced to “a place of schmaltzy cuteness.” Somes Sound, Mount Desert Island’s magnificent fjard, is an indistinct body of water where Denise Castle, one of the creepy twins, rustles lobsters. Schoodic gets a shout, but other than references to warring lobstermen, the closest Barr comes to portraying a distinct coastal-Maine culture is the old motorboat pilot who transports Anna’s friends to their rental on Boar Island and whom Barr describes as “a gruff cliché of a New Englander.” Indeed. On approaching the island, he points and announces — we’re not kidding — “That be Boar.” Might Barr’s own lack of familiarity be the reason she limited Anna to a 21-day assignment?
Our home-team gripes aside, Boar Island is a page-turner. The seemingly ordinary social media harassment of Anna’s best friend’s daughter quickly escalates into something far more sinister. Meanwhile, Denise Castle and her sister, Paulette Duffy, are the evilest twins we’ve seen in a while. Boar Island is a good story — but it not be Maine. — Virginia M. Wright