Blind Descent by Nevada Barr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"Naked people of all shapes and sizes dangling from ropes over a pint-sized paradise; the picture so tickled Anna she had to think dark thoughts to keep from giggling."
Since I liked Nevada Barr's
quite a lot I have reached for another book in the series, Blind Descent (1998). Each novel in Ms. Barr's Anna Pigeon series is set in a different national park in the U.S, which is music to the eyes of this ardent fan of the National Parks System. Descent is located in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but not in the developed and tourist-accessible part of the park, which - as Ms. Barr writes - feels like "a Disney creation," but in area of Lechuguilla Cave, the seventh-longest explored cave in the world (source: Wikipedia), open only to scientists and National Parks service personnel.
Anna Pigeon, currently employed in the Mesa Verde National Park, is called to Carlsbad Caverns National Park as a member of a rescue team to evacuate an injured caver. Ms. Pigeon suffers from a serious case of claustrophobia so she would not volunteer to participate in the rescue mission, but the seriously injured caver is Frieda, her friend from Mesa Verde, who insists that Ms. Pigeon be a part of the rescue. All this sounds rather implausible at first, but when we learn that Frieda suspects that her accident was in fact attempted murder, the setup of the plot becomes somewhat believable.
The reader follows Ms. Pigeon's laborious underground trip to reach Frieda, crawling through miles of narrow spaces that barely allow to squeeze one's body through, almost one thousand feet below the ground. The description of the traumatic underground escapade is by far the best part of the novel. I have no way of knowing how factual the map of the cave printed on the inside covers is, but it is helpful in tracking the events and accompanied by well-written prose compounds the claustrophobic feelings in the reader. In addition to the sense of being buried alive we are treated to an underground rock slide - a vivid and realistic scene - and an actual murder.
While the underground scenes are great - worth at least four stars - the rather amateurish detective work by Ms. Pigeon outside of the Lechuguilla Cave is not that interesting and I have to confess to having skimmed some pages. The denouement is quite clever if perhaps not the most plausible but - unfortunately for me - it includes a standard, totally cliché climactic scene that would work better in a movie than in a novel.
The author offers the reader a richness of caving detail: techniques, folklore, terminology and while I am unable to verify how accurately all these things are portrayed, it certainly reads realistic, including the juicy details of what the cavers do with their urine and feces when they have to spend many days entombed in underground corridors just a few feet wide.
A good read, definitely recommended, but mostly for non-mystery reasons. I will look for further National Park installments of Ms. Barr's series.
Three and a half stars.
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