I can’t say I’m a big fan of “series” characters – or can I? What about Harry Rabbit? Or Frank Bascombe? Or Nathan Zuckerman? I know, I know. Those are literature, right? You’ve got Updike, Ford and Roth. The big three. Three of my favorites, too. But I dip “down” into the mystery-thriller genre and somehow Anna Pigeon doesn’t quite cut it. Sure, it’s the formula, right? It’s the fact that book after book she turns up in yet another National Park and a dead body turns up and of course she’s going to pursue justice and prosecute the case on behalf of us all. I have to confess I didn’t really, at first, like Nevada Barr. I started with “Track of the Cat” when it first came out and I thought it was okay but I didn’t quite “get” the relationship with her sister Molly and I thought the mystery was okay, but only average. I liked the outdoor aspect, definitely. Now I relish Nevada Barr’s work. There’s something rich and complicated and interesting about Anna Pigeon and I am in complete admiration of Barr’s ability to layer and add elements to her character. No, I haven’t read them all. I hop scotch around, sort of bumping into new titles or old titles on a catch-as-catch-can basis. I don’t want to overdose on her. I want to savor each one as they come. I’ll catch up eventually. I just read “Liberty Falling” and I wasn’t looking forward to it – I thought the idea of Anna dealing with Molly’s illness in New York and dealing with a tragedy at the Statue of Liberty would be a bit forced. Again—wrong.
This is not one of Barr’s tightest plots. The wind-up takes awhile. The energy is flat at the beginning. Even after the initial fatality, events lull and sag for a few pages too long. Once energy gets moving and tension builds, however, it comes by the boat-load. “Liberty Falling” is good Anna time – tending to Molly, dancing around a “slightly used but still serviceable ex-boyfriend.” It’s terrific to see Anna with big city tourists, tunneling down in the subway (thinking of her New Mexico cave experience along the way) and walking the mean streets (at times) of New York. All along the way is the deep Pigeon cynicism and wry cracks. “The apparition was either running away or low on ectoplasm,” she observes at one point when sounds from a “ghost” grow faint. In this tale Anna sprouts a curious reticence. She’ not forthright with the people she encounters. And, of course, Anna questions why that is. She questions everything. She absorbs everything, as we all know, and Barr fans know what appears to be innocuous detail may very well surface later as the key to the unraveling the source of the danger.
At the core of “Liberty Falling” is a “nasty little story of hatred, fear and ignorance,” as Pigeon observes but it’s also the ongoing development of Pigeon’s world point of view. When you read Nevada Barr, you are inside Anna’s skin and it’s a distinct attitude and take on events of all sorts—no different than Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. I love them both. From a reader’s perspective, getting to know somebody through plot on the page, I see no real difference.