Book review: Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr

Track of the Cat
by Nevada Barr
Berkley, 2003; first published 1993
Anna Pigeon #1

Anna Pigeon is a ranger in the US park service, proficient at the outdoor life. She’s out on a hike in the wilderness of the Guadalupe Mountains in Texas when she comes across the body of a fellow-ranger, Sheila Drury, who has apparently been killed by a lion. It isn’t until Anna is over her initial shock and has escorted the corpse to base that she begins to feel suspicious about the cause of death. Her disgust at the hunt her colleagues rapidly organise to kill an animal to placate the tourists and the locals leads her to investigate the circumstances in more detail. After escorting Sheila’s mother to the trailer where the dead woman lived in order to sort through her possessions, Anna is even more convinced that an animal of the human, rather than feline, variety is responsible for her colleague’s death.

The novel is mainly concerned with Anna’s investigation of her colleagues, the most interesting of whom is the secretary Christine, who becomes a friend despite Anna’s suspicions of her (and indeed, everybody). The rangers are less well-depicted, but even so Anna is not short of leads or ideas about their possible involvement. Anna’s mission to find the truth is told against a background of this area of natural beauty, confidently described at many levels of detail by the author, as well as the various tensions between environmentalists, game hunters, and the bureaucratic polices of the park service.

The reader is aware that Anna is a woman suffering great sorrow, the cause of which gradually becomes clear. Anna’s main support is her sister Molly, a New York psychoanalyst whose sardonic wisdom, provided by telephone, is a highlight of the novel. The personality of Anna, and her own story, are more interesting than the standard-issue crime plot, and will doubtless develop in interesting ways in the future. Another great strength of this novel is the setting: not only is the area beautifully described, but the various competing interests are compellingly put in a way that engages the reader’s attention and does not oversimplify any one point of view.

I thank Sarah of Crimepieces for kindly sending me this book. Her review of it is here.

In the Spotlight: Margot Kinberg’s analysis of this novel.

Other reviews of Track of the Cat: Kirkus reviews, Suite 101 and Pequea Valley readers’ blog.

About the book at the author’s website. It won both the Anthony and the Agatha awards for best first novel. There are now 17 novels in the series.

10 thoughts on “Book review: Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr

  1. Thanks Maxine, once again, for an excellent review. I take it this is the first in the series. I should find the time to read it one day, soon.

  2. This book was a very good start for an excellent series. Not only is Anna Pigeon a complicated, yet winning protagonist, the locations, which differ in each book, are very well described.
    I have learned a great deal about national parks in the States and the geography of each one. Whether learning about baby turtles on the East Coast, cave exploring in the Southwest, Anasazi ruins or any number of interesting facts about each region, readers are educated and enthralled.
    This has always been a favorite series of mine.

  3. Glad you enjoyed it Maxine. A comment on my post suggested the series gets less interesting when Anna settles down into domestic bliss (isn’t this always the case) but this book made me want to read more of the series.

  4. I’m glad you enjoyed meeting Anna – I thought you would probably like her as she seems “our” sort of lass :). I haven’t read the early books in the series (having given up the quest to always read in order) but I would like to go back and read some of the early ones, even though I have met the older, more assured Anna.

    I have thought a couple of the later books quite wonderful so I’m not sure I agree with the person who says they get less interesting – I suspect that might be a matter of familiarity breeding contempt – whereas I came to the later novels without any knowledge of Anna’s earlier exploits. She might be in domestic bliss but her working life is still pretty interesting – far more so than mine is anyway. HUNTING SEASON is book 11 or thereabouts and it takes place in the deep South – it’s a ripper of a book tackling some of the themes you might expect but in a non-didactic way. I also liked BORDERLINE which is later still in the series and has Anna and hubby hurtling down the Colorado River – that one deals with some hot political issues too including illegal immigration.

  5. Thanks for all the comments – Sarah, presumably Anna changes a bit, then, as she’s definitely not the settling-down type in this novel, the way she behaves to her boyfriend (not badly, just independently!). Bernadette – thanks for the info, I must admit I was baulking a bit at reading every book in this long series so I think I’ll skip a few and start in on Hunting Season. And thanks for the encouragement, Jose Ignacio and Kathy.

  6. I definitely agree about Hunting Season. It’s interesting and deals with issues, too.

  7. Maxine – Thanks for the kind mention 🙂 And thanks for the excellent review. I’m very glad you liked this one; I really am. Anna Pigeon is, in my opinion, a terrific character and yes, she does develop as time goes by and that’s one thing I really like about her. She’s well-drawn and complex and I like that about her. And yes, the setting is done, I think, very very well and adds much to the plot. I hope you’ll enjoy this series as, in my opinion, it’s one of those that gets even better as a few books go by.

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