Hunting Season, ( G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2002, $24.95 ) by Nevada Barr
Hunting Season opens with Anna Pigeon in an unlikely prediacament: at a wedding, in a red dress, and possibly in love. Those readers who have followed Anna's career as a National Park Ranger from the Guadelupe Mountains in Texas in Track of the Cat know that she has advanced to District Ranger in a section of the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi. They will be surprised to discover that Anna even owns a dress. To everyone's relief, including her own, Anna is soon called back to duty by the discovery of a body in her jurisdiction. The dead guy appears to have died in circumstances that involve leather and bondage. The Old South may have progressed to voting in an African American as county sheriff, but the possibility of a pudgy good-ole-boy participating in sexual shenanigans crosses a line in toleration.
The Natchez Trace is a long stretch of road from Natchez, Miss., up to Nashville, Tenn. Like the Santa Fe and the Oregon Trails, the Trace was a crucial roadway in the creation of a nation of disparate regions, and it has accumulated a store of legend and history. Meandering the length of Mississippi, the Trace was originally a series of Indian trails that were used by frontiersman returning from delivering goods by riverboat to New Orleans, and sections of it have been designated part of the National Park system.
For Anna Pigeon, the Trace is the latest in the series of places where she has emptied her backpack and permitted her dog and cat to call home. Too many voices haunt her to allow Anna easy use of such an unlikely word despite the fact that middle age has put gray in her hair and gifted her with a certain equanimity. She has even acquired a lover who makes her feel like an adolescent despite the fact that Paul is still nominally married and his wife is balking at granting him a divorce. Anna will need her precarious new-found balance as she investigates the murder left in her hands by an uninterested FBI. A rebellious field ranger, resentful of Anna's authority, requires finesse, and deer poaching on the trace during hunting season seems to be turning homicidal. Deer hunting and murder in Mississippi are further complicated by a political campaign for sheriff, and Anna, never a fan of the species, is finding little reason to revise her assessment of humanity.
Along with her wits and gritty courage, other constant factors weigh in to help Anna's equilibrium: her sister, Molly, her animal companions, Taco and Piedmont, and her abiding passion for the outdoors. It is this latter emotion that Nevada Barr always manages to communicate. One of the many pleasures of good mysteries is the opportunity for a reader to experience the daily life of a place far away, either exotic in distance or culture. Tony Hillerman guides us to Native American tribal life in the Four Corners area of the Southwest; Reginald Hill takes us into the equally tribal life of small towns in Yorkshire, England; Sara Paretsky limns the details of the varied neighborhoods of Chicago. [ See St. Martin's at www.bookbrowser.com/Detmyst/mysteries.html . ]
Nevada Barr has laid claim to the National Park system as the territory where Anna Pigeon is as at home as any bird, fish or mammal. Most of us will feel lucky for a short visit to Isle Royale in Lake Superior or a drive across the windswept vistas of Mesa Verde, but when we go with Anna, we also get to dive through deep, dark waters to wrecked ships in A Superior Death, and in Ill Wind we hike trails to nights where the crackle and smell of a campfire accompany the pageant of a vast and starry sky. So I must confess that while I hope Anna comes to terms with the sorrows of her past, I really don't want her to settle down for long.