By Maureen Corrigan
Monday, August 30, 2010; C02
By Nevada Barr
Minotaur. 378 pp. $25.99
With "Burn," her 16th Anna Pigeon mystery, Nevada Barr intensifies what's become her modus operandi: putting her heroine and her readers through as much brutality as we can stomach. The Pigeon novels were always intrepid when it came to charting the rough terrain of human cruelty, but "Winter Study" (two novels back) took the series into a darker universe. Because of the grotesque killings that took place in that outing, Anna was put on administrative leave from the National Park Service, a career that had defined her life. She tried to recover by taking a belated honeymoon with her new husband in the subsequent novel, "Borderline." Big Bend National Park, however, turned out to be a bad choice as a vacation destination. During that rafting excursion into terror, Anna was required to perform a rudimentary C-section on an almost-dead woman and then run, with the starving newborn clasped to her chest, from hunters seeking human targets.
In "Burn," Anna, still on leave, finds herself in New Orleans in the middle of the grisliest horror yet. As in too much of contemporary American literature -- high and low -- the story line concerns kidnapping, pederasty and the torture of children. "Burn" is a psychologically arduous read that I can only hesitantly recommend. It offers engrossing character studies and an ingenious plot; it will also make many readers want to throw up.
New Orleans is an odd spot for the great-outdoors-loving Ranger Pigeon to alight, but Anna has gone there to recuperate at the French Quarter home of her friend, Geneva, a blind singer working at the New Orleans Jazz National Heritage Park. Settling in for a performance, Anna reflects on the work carried out by Geneva and her fellow performers:
"They were park rangers; their job was to protect and preserve the musical heritage of the historic city of New Orleans. . . . In the name of political pork, the Park Service preserved so many worthless bits of history that some said the NPS was where white elephants went to die. Then there were places like this, where the sacred torch of a time long past was carried, still burning, into the present."
The sanctuary of musical grace created by Geneva's voice, however, is violated by the intrusion of street punks and by the lurking presence of a creepy tenant renting an apartment in Geneva's house. Anna comes to suspect this tenant of being a sexual predator with an eye for young girls and, because "for the best part of twenty years she'd been in the business of rescuing things and people from other things and people," she decides to tail this monster through the strip joints and sour alleys of nocturnal New Orleans.
Even as Anna descends into that particular inferno, another more nightmarish story line gathers force. Clare Sullivan is a mother of two girls, living in Seattle and married to a Saudi Arabian man with a mysterious import-export business. As Clare is returning from a dead-of-night run to the local drugstore for cough syrup, her house explodes into flames. Since her marriage, to put it mildly, was troubled, Clare immediately becomes the police's No. 1 suspect in the deaths of her husband and children, whose charred remains are found at the ruins of the house.
Except, on the basis of an overheard conversation between two creepy voyeurs at the scene of the fire, Clare believes her daughters are still alive and that they've been transported to New Orleans. Summoning up her skills as a former actress, Clare transforms herself -- body and spirit -- into a completely different person in order to elude the cops and rescue her daughters. Her path crosses with Anna's in a shocking way, and the two women join forces to locate the most helpless victims of the sex trade in the Crescent City.
The most gripping parts of "Burn" depict Clare's shaky hold on her old identity as a mother -- which is tormenting to her -- and her terrifying slide into her assumed self, "cell by cell, thought by thought." So vividly does Barr dramatize Clare's anguish over her lost daughters and their probable fate that it's hard for readers to stay for long within Clare's mind and heart.
The harrowing, extended climax of "Burn" is also difficult to take in, even for those of us who love the harsh world of crime noir. Barr continues to stretch herself as a writer and to push her battered heroine, Anna, further into the wilderness -- both the geographical and psychological kind. But "Burn" raises the larger question of "When is enough enough in a mystery series?" Aside from being boiled alive, poor Anna has endured just about every kind of assault known to humans and other animals. And so have her loyal readers. In recent years, the Anna Pigeon books, however sharply observed and inventive, have felt less like an exercise in pleasure and more like an exercise in literary masochism.
Corrigan, who is the book critic for the National Public Radio program "Fresh Air," teaches literature at Georgetown University.