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Book Review: Destroying Angel

By (April 28, 2014) No Comment

Destroyer Angeldestroyer angel cover

By Nevada Barr

Minotaur Books, 2014


“A man might put Anna on a pedestal, but she would only leap down, snatch up a chain saw, and cut it up for firewood” – so thinks Paul Davidson about Anna Pigeon in Nevada Barr’s Destroyer Angel, the 18th novel starring Pigeon, a National Park Service ranger with an uncanny penchant for stumbling upon crimes (sort of like Miss Marple, only with better upper body strength and an improved facility with pump-action shotguns). And Paul Davidson ought to know what he’s talking about when it comes to Anna Pigeon, since he’s her husband, an Episcopalian priest based in Boulder, Colorado. He’s a mild and thoroughly civilized character, and neither of those things can be said of his wife.

Also based in Boulder is Hendricks & Hendricks, a very successful sporting goods company that’s field-testing a whole range of new products designed for disabled people in order to open up the hiking and camping experience to them. Destroying Angel opens in the middle of such a field test, with brilliant designer Leah out camping with wheelchair-bound Heath. The two have brought their daughters – Elizabeth and Katie, respectively – a sweet old dog, and a whole range of Leah’s new camping equipment: “ … a chair, a canoe, a lifting device, and selvane, a chemical compound that was lightweight and strong, and dramatically decreased friction” (and a classic muckraking aside: “… God forbid the sinister uses the military would find for it”). And although Leah is laser-focused on the performance of all her knew creations, Heath is allowing herself to enjoy the kind of deep-wilderness enjoyments she’d assumed she’d never feel again – in fact, she’s feeling those enjoyments so strongly she’d like to feel them in ways our eco-conscious world now makes crass:

There were times Heath didn’t want to conserved for the use of the next generation; she wanted to pretend there was enough of everything wild, that it would go on forever, and humans were too insignificant to do any real damage.

The idyllic opening scene is interrupted in just the way murder mysteries so relish: a quartet of grim, gun-toting men step into their secluded campsite and take all four women hostage. Nevada Barr takes us gradually deeper and deeper inside the thoughts of the leader of the gunmen, so we know a shadowy operator has sent the men to find and abduct these women and their daughters (and we slowly become aware of the long-simmering thirst for revenge that’s put the whole plot in motion).

The flaw in the plan? Anna Pigeon, of course. Unbeknownst to these gunmen, Heath and Leah had taken Pigeon along on their “shakedown cruise” – the only reason she wasn’t in the camp when the gunmen arrived is because she took off for some of the solitary time she values so deeply. She’s taken a canoe for a peaceful float down on the Fox River (we’re in the wilds of Upper Minnesota in this novel), where she can relax and even internally rhapsodize about the natural world she loves:

The world seemed to form from the soughing of the wind in the dying leaves. The mystical ululation of a loon, a sound that seemed to Anna to linger on the water long after the bird had ceased to call, punctuated the thought.

The air was a delicate balance. The last of summer rested on the skin as the prickle of coming winter brushed the mind. Anna could taste the fertile loamy scent of leaves, fallen and readying to return to the earth, and the lingering smell of warm grass, dust, and pine. Mated with the spicy scent of campfire smoke, it triggered a longing for sometime, someplace, someone that never existed, but was nonetheless exquisite, and to be deliciously mourned.

There’s wonderfully lovely and indulgent reflections like this all throughout the Anna Pigeon novels; it’s one of the strongest draws on offer here. Pigeon is a classic example of a kind of mystery-thriller hero that’s taken on renewed popularity in our ultra-convenienced wi-fi café latte era: the tough woman (or man, as in the case of, say, Craig Johnson’s Walt Langmire) in a wild place. These characters are properly respectful of the natural world, but they also draw enormous strength from it – which definitely comes in handy for Anna Pigeon in this latest novel, since she must now use all her wilderness skills to shadow the kidnappers as they move through the forest with their captives. It’s a familiar (classic? Overused?) scenario – unarmed solitary protagonist tries to pick off systematically a group of armed opponents while keeping a group of hostages alive – and Barr dramatizes it so perfectly that the pages just fly by.

The fact that Destroying Angel comes along so late – 18th book in a series! – might scare off new readers, but that would be a mistake; Barr is better than virtually anybody in the mystery-thriller game at bringing her readers up to speed. She fills her characters with immediate three-dimensionality; she seamlessly incorporates the big developments of earlier books (we never for a minute feel, for instance, that we’re missing anything important about Paul Davidson, or Heath and her adopted daughter – all of whom are introduced long before this book); and best of all, she tells us everything we need to know about Anna Pigeon with such skillful economy that we come to know her comfortably right away. In Destroying Angel she even outdoes herself, nailing her own star character in one line: “In her thirties, she’d been pretty well deconstructed by life. In solitude and wilderness, she’d been put back together.”

This is a series very much worth your time if you’re mystery-thriller-inclined.