Ill Wind by Nevada Barr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"Overbalancing, the insect stumbled forward a step. [Anna] stepped into the opening and rammed the tip of the baton into the exposed gut with all her strength and weight."
Ill Wind (1995) is my third novel in the Nevada Barr's National Park series: after Glacier National Park (
) and Carlsbad Caverns NP (
) Anita Pigeon now works in Mesa Verde. I couldn't wait to read this installment as this is the national park that I know the best (my fourth visit there was just 11 months ago) and the general area of Four Corners, where Mesa Verde is located, is one of my favorite places on Earth.
While this is a proper mystery/crime novel with a dead body and Ranger Pigeon's investigation there is also a deeper layer in the story. The reader will learn about the mystery of Anasazi people (the Old Ones, or - in current day politically correct parlance - the Ancestral Puebloans) who, some time about 1200-1300, suddenly abandoned the cliff dwellings and the territory they had occupied for many centuries. Some of the most famous dwellings are located in Mesa Verde. The mystery has not yet been convincingly explained by archaeologists and ethnographers. A few months ago I reviewed here David Roberts' In Search of the Old Ones where the abandonment enigma is discussed in depth and with a research bent. I am happy that Ms. Barr treats the topic seriously and with respect in this crime novel. She even mentions that the theories explaining the abandonment "change with political weather." True, and sad.
Anyway, Ms. Pigeon is now a ranger in Mesa Verde (the readers will recall that rangers are responsible for law enforcement on national park grounds). The main waterline is being renovated and the conflicts between the park administrators, contractors, rangers, and archaeologists provide an interesting backdrop of the crime plot. The story meanders a little to introduce the protagonists (and later suspects), we have a domestic dispute where the ex-husband mails his ex-wife a certain part of his body (no, not quite what one might think, but close), yet the main thread begins well past one-third of the book when the body of one of the main characters is found in a fire ring of a kiva. The author rather skillfully connects the criminal plot with the Old Ones' mystique: there are sightings of a mysterious "veil" - a "kind of iridescent shimmer" - and some park employees even suggest that the spirits of the original inhabitants of the dwellings manifest their presence, via sipapu portals. Ms. Pigeon finds an interesting correlation between the sightings and evacuations of sick tourists from less accessible parts of the park. I find the overall mystery well constructed and satisfying, even if the denouement is a bit implausible.
This would be a very good novel if not for the awkward prose. Compared to two other books in the series that I have read the writing is strangely incompetent: the author has a tendency to enumerate all the small actions taken by characters: sit down, stand up, take condiments out of the cupboard, put them on the table, drink Pepsi, pick up a potato chip, break it into small pieces, and so on, and on, and on. I did not notice it in the later novels so maybe Ms. Barr did not yet hit her literary stride in this early installment of the series.
Other than less than masterful prose I find the book very readable and, of course, I love reading about all these amazing places that I am beginning to know: Chapin Mesa, Far View, Cedar Tree Tower, Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and many others.
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