Barr, Nevada 1952–

views updated

Barr, Nevada 1952–

PERSONAL: Born March 1, 1952, in Yerington, NV; her parents were both pilots and mechanics; divorced. Education: California Polytechnic University, B.A.; University of California—Irvine, M.F.A.

ADDRESSES: Home—Clinton, MS.

CAREER: Classic Stage Company, New York, NY, performer in shows Off-Broadway; performed in television commercials and corporate and industrial films, Minneapolis, MN; United States National Park Service, law enforcement ranger in National Parks, including Guadalupe Mountains, TX, Isle Royale, MI, Mesa Verde, CO, Natchez Trace Parkway, MS, and Horsefly Fire Camp, ID, beginning 1989. Has also worked as a Morgan Stanley executive assistant for eighteen months, a voice-over actress for radio, a storytelling instructor, a travel writer, and a restaurant critic.

AWARDS, HONORS: Anthony Award for Best First Novel, and Agatha Award for Best First Novel, both in 1994, both for Track of the Cat; "Prix du Roman," French National Crime Fiction Award, 1996, for Firestorm; Barry Award for Best Novel, 2001, for Deep South.



Track of the Cat, Putnam (New York, NY), 1993.

A Superior Death, Putnam (New York, NY), 1994.

Ill Wind, Putnam (New York, NY), 1995.

Firestorm, Putnam (New York, NY), 1996.

Endangered Species, Putnam (New York, NY), 1997.

Blind Descent, Putnam (New York, NY), 1998.

Liberty Falling, Putnam (New York, NY), 1999.

Deep South, Putnam (New York, NY), 2000.

Blood Lure, Putnam (New York, NY), 2001.

Hunting Season, Putnam (New York, NY), 2002.

Flashback, Putnam (New York, NY), 2003.

High Country, Putnam (New York, NY), 2004.

Hard Truth, Putnam (New York, NY), 2005.


Bittersweet (novel), St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1984.

(With others) Naked Came the Phoenix: A Serial Novel, edited by Marcia Talley, St. Martin's Minotaur (New York, NY), 2001.

(Editor and author of introduction) Nevada Barr Presents Malice Domestic 10: An Anthology of Original Traditional Mystery Stories, Avon (New York, NY), 2001.

Seeking Enlightenment … Hat by Hat: A Skeptic's Path to Religion, Putnam (New York, NY), 2003.

Also author of foreword, A Suitable Job for a Woman: Inside the World of Women Private Eyes, by Val McDermid. Contributor to anthologies, including Women on the Case, edited by Sara Paretsky, 1996, and AZ Murder Goes … Artful, edited by Susan Mailing and Barbara Peters, 2001. Contributor to periodicals, including Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine.

ADAPTATIONS: Some of Barr's works have been released as audiobooks, including Hard Truth, Recorded Books, 2005. The Anna Pigeon books were optioned for a television miniseries by Kevin Brown Productions.

SIDELIGHTS: Popular novelist Nevada Barr, best known for her mystery series starring amateur detective and National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon, began her career as a published author in 1984 with an historical novel set in the American West. Bittersweet, Barr's second book but first published work, tells the story of a schoolteacher, Imogene Grelznik, who, when falsely accused of having a love affair with a female pupil, leaves her native Philadelphia for a smaller Pennsylvania town where she really does have a love affair with a female pupil: a sixteen-year-old abused wife named Sarah. Imogene and Sarah flee to Nevada, become innkeepers, and maintain their independence in the face of a rough, male-dominated world that does not understand them.

The plot—an unusual premise for western fiction, according to commentators—attracted critical notice, as did the quality of Barr's craftsmanship. Sister Avila, writing for Library Journal, called Bittersweet "a first novel of power and vitality that will grip the reader." A Booklist reviewer stated: "Despite the novel's flaws … Barr succeeds in conveying the meaning of these brave and desperate lives."

Though Barr followed Bittersweet with three other books, they remained unpublished. Meanwhile, she had taken a job with the National Park Service, working as a law enforcement ranger in such locations as Guadalupe Mountains National Park in west Texas, Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, and Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi. This professional experience was to prove fruitful for Barr's writing career, for it became the basis for her popular mystery series featuring park ranger and amateur sleuth, Anna Pigeon. As she told Booklist interviewer John Rowen: "In 1991 … I started writing with a character like me in a murder mystery." The result was a mystery series acclaimed for its originality and vivid descriptions of its spectacular natural settings.

In Track of the Cat, the first book in the series, Anna Pigeon is working in Guadalupe Mountains National Park when the body of a dead ranger is found, apparently killed by a mountain lion. Anna does not believe the obvious explanation, however, and investigates the lives and circumstances of everyone around her. At times, she is helped by her sister Molly, a New York City psychiatrist whose telephone conversations with Anna become an enjoyable staple of the series. Track of the Cat earned considerable praise as well as both the Anthony and Agatha awards for best first novel—much to Barr's amusement, she told Rowen, since the book was really her fifth novel. Reviewer Paul Skenazy, writing in the Washington Post Book World, raised the issue of uneven writing and "overripe" prose in the first third of the book, but called the novel "a wonderful and absorbing tale." Barr, he wrote, "knows her countryside and writes about it with a naturalist's eye…. She also does a fine job putting us inside a woman who looks at the world as a woman," with the result, he claimed, that the novel's "inner geography" matched its landscapes. Charles Champlin, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, regretted that Anna's physical isolation forced her to use her horse excessively as a Dr. Watson-type sounding-board, but that was a minor quibble; Champlin hailed Track of the Cat as "an eventful, characterful story with a slam-bang denouement, all set in a wilderness environment Barr knows, loves and describes with poetic passion." A scholarly review in Women's Review of Books more than a year after the novel's publication treated Barr's work as inspiringly "ecofeminist." The critic, Mimi Wesson, praised Barr for allowing her protagonist a realistic ambivalence on social and human issues: "Some of the most rewarding parts of the narrative depict Anna's struggles to understand and satisfy her own needs for human connection," she declared.

The next seven Anna Pigeon mysteries attracted consistent critical praise. The follow up to Track of the Cat, A Superior Death, finds Anna in Isle Royale National Park in the middle of Lake Superior, halfway between the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Canada. The location provided the author with a chance to give her heroine a fear of the immeasurable, as well as the spunk to conquer that trepidation. An assorted group of possible suspects, including park employees and tourists, can be found in the otherwise thinly populated area; this time the trigger for the mystery plot is the discovery of an experienced diver's dead body on a sunken wreck shortly after his wedding. Skenazy, again reviewing Barr for the Washington Post Book World, called A Superior Death "a wonderfully satisfying read." He was particularly enthralled with Barr's "tangled, rich descriptive language" which, to him, had "an engrossing pull." Marilyn Stasio, the New York Times Book Review crime fiction expert, also singled out the descriptions for praise: "Ms. Barr's sternly beautiful style is best displayed in natural settings—like her eerie underwater landscapes of sunken ships and floating corpses—where human life makes itself scarce." Tribune Books contributor Dick Adler was another critic who enjoyed A Superior Death and found Barr best at nature portraits. Envisioning happily the further expansion of the Anna Pigeon series, he wrote: "Think of all the national parks Barr has left in which to turn Anna loose."

The third Anna novel, Ill Wind, returns to an old stomping ground, Mesa Verde National Park. This time a disliked park ranger's body is found at a "pathologically neat" murder scene. Surrounding this mystery are questions about the fate of the Anasazi Indians and about local construction practices. Anna assists FBI agent Frederick Stanton in solving the crime, and their interactions provide a developing focus for human relationships in the book. This Literary Guild and Mystery Guild selection won good reviews; a critic for Publishers Weekly commended the "common sense and appreciation for nature that makes Anna Pigeon such good company." Stasio, writing again for the New York Times Book Review, applauded the intelligence with which Barr answered the questions the novel posed and added, "Her stirring style is best illustrated by vibrant descriptions of the order and disorder in the natural world. In vivid images of life … and death … she shows us the very face of nature." Tribune Books critic Gary Dretzka used Ill Wind as an opportunity to say of the Anna Pigeon books in general, "This is a rich new series, enlivened by unusual settings and a threedimensional protagonist."

The 1996 entry in the series, Firestorm, brought a change of setting and the challenge of a different kind of mystery. The place is a forest on fire in northern California, and the subplot is of the locked room mystery style which, according to Maureen Corrigan in the Washington Post Book World, Barr "ingeniously resurrects." While helping fight the fire, Anna and eight others in her squad, one of whom is injured, are trapped in a canyon as the fire advances upon them. For survival, they take shelter inside the individual, fireproof tents they carry for just such occurrences. The fire passes through, burning the entire landscape around them; and when (twelve minutes later) the firefighters emerge from their foil cocoons they are unharmed—except for one of them, who is found dead, with a knife in his back. The question of who could have committed murder during the twelve minutes of the firestorm, and why, is the locked-room puzzle. "Firestorm is a brilliantly executed mystery," asserted Corrigan, who went on to favorably compare the forest fire descriptions with Dorothy Sayers' descriptions of flood in The Nine Tailors, a mystery classic. Some of the fire scenes even "approach the reverent terror of Norman Maclean's posthumous 1992 masterpiece, Young Men and Fire," Corrigan declared. Tribune Books contributor Adler went a step further, calling the fire scenes "the best I've read anywhere." He called the novel "good, dirty, escapist fun of the first rank." Dick Lochte, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, told readers that Firestorm describes natural disaster "with such authenticity and in such chilling detail that you can smell the smoke and taste the ashes." Lochte continued: "Barr is a splendid storyteller, but it's her knowledge of the territory that ignites this fast-paced and suspenseful whodunit." New York Times Book Review critic Stasio put a slightly different spin on her equally high praise, saying, "The striking visceral quality … is all the more remarkable because she writes with such a cool, steady hand about the violence of nature and the cruelty of man."

As she continued the series, Barr placed her protagonist in increasingly diverse park settings. Endangered Species places Anna on temporary assignment at Georgia's Cumberland Island National Seashore, where she investigates the deaths of a pilot and a district ranger in a plane crash. Blind Descent has Anna back in the West, at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in Colorado, where she is challenged by claustrophobia when she is asked to help rescue a woman injured while exploring a cave. And in Liberty Falling, Anna goes to New York City to visit her critically ill sister. Gateways Park, which includes Liberty and Ellis Islands, becomes the backdrop for several fatal falls that Anna eventually traces to nefarious doings.

In Deep South Anna takes a post at Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi, where she discovers an undercurrent of violence and tragic history beneath the deaths of two white girls. A reviewer for Booklist found that the novel "offers the same strengths as its predecessors: vivid prose, a surprising plot, and a cast of sympathetic, well-rounded characters," and that Barr "effectively captures the beauty and menace of nature below the Mason Dixon Line and provides thoughtful insights into teens, race, and the Civil War." A Publishers Weekly critic offered similar praise, commending the book as "another suspenseful and highly atmospheric mystery, illuminated even in this new setting by [Barr's] trademark lyricism in writing about the natural world."

Blood Lure, the ninth Anna Pigeon mystery, has Anna dealing with the nastier side of nature. After accepting a training assignment at Watertown-Glacier International Peace Park on the border of Montana and Canada, she has to come to terms with a vicious bear attack. But though the victim might have been killed by a bear, the victim's face was removed by a knife—the perverse act of a disturbed human. "Overall, Blood Lure is an engrossing story made better by the vivid descriptions of nature through obviously appreciative eyes," wrote Linda Brinson in the Winston-Salem Journal. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reviewer Dorman T. Shindler praised Anna's inner struggle, saying that Barr's "biggest triumph is in detailing Pigeon's 'falling out' with nature, and her inner journey back to trust." But a Booklist reviewer criticized Blood Lure as weaker than the previous novels in the series: "Barr takes too long to set up the action … and, most surprising of all, the landscape is not as vividly described as usual." People Weekly reviewer Jean Reynolds was enthusiastic about the scenery, however, writing: "Readers can take pleasure in Barr's descriptions of the natural setting…. Her fans can only be grateful that there are still plenty of national parks left for Anna Pigeon to visit."

After the somewhat disappointing Blood Lure, critics were more pleased with Hunting Season, in which Anna returns to the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi. There, she investigates not only a poaching problem, but also a mysterious murder in which the victim was apparently involved in a sadomasochistic ritual. Barr also gives Anna a romantic subplot in a relationship with a sheriff. Praising the improved attention to character in the novel, John Rowen asserted in Booklist that Hunting Season marks "a definite return to form" for the author. "As usual, the writing is first-rate, with vivid characters and atmospheric background," remarked a Publishers Weekly contributor about the book. After the sheriff proposes marriage to Anna, the ranger decides to accept a position at Fort Jefferson on an island off the coast of Florida in Flashback. Here, she considers the marriage proposal while also, of course, becoming involved in a mystery. A boat explosion seems to involve criminal doings, and, coincidentally, has ties to a box full of old family letters Anna received from her sister written by family members who once lived at the fort. "Barr's technique of flashing between the past and present in intervening chapters works magically," reported Mary Frances Wilkins in a Booklist review, while a Publishers Weekly contributor assured readers that they "will rejoice in this double-layered story with its remarkable setting, passionately rendered; new readers have a treat in store."

High Country has Anna involved in several adventures: she investigates the disappearance of several children in the Sierra Nevada mountains, works undercover as a hotel waitress, discovers a submerged plane full of drugs, and is chased by poachers and has to survive in the wilderness. "So well done is this nail-biting sequence," commented a Publishers Weekly writer about the nature survival episode, "that the resolution can come only as something of a letdown," while Nanci Milone Hill praised "Barr's even pace and deft characterizations" in a Library Journal review. As with so many of her series books, Barr was also lauded for her descriptions of setting. For example, in Book Reporter Roz Shea attested that "Nevada Barr masterfully evokes the sights, sounds and majestic beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains."

Now married, Barr's heroine embarks on a new adventure to the Rocky Mountains in the thirteenth book in the series, Hard Truth. Much more violent and shocking than her previous books, especially in the closing chapters, Hard Truth concerns the disappearance of three teenage girls. Two of them return home, but they refuse to tell people what happened and their families will not cooperate with authorities. The only person who is able to reach them, at least in part, is Heath Jarrod, a mountain climber who is now a paraplegic. "Barr nicely balances the brutality with a thoughtful portrayal of Heath's struggle to rethink herself," remarked Stephanie Zvirin in Booklist. "Barr again proves her skill in putting believable characters in peril against a backdrop of breathtaking scenery," concluded a Publishers Weekly critic.

In the course of her Anna Pigeon series, Barr told Rowen, she has done considerable physical research. "Often, I've worked at the parks in my books, and those parks struck me as marvelous," she said. "To me, it's so important to be where you're writing about. In the Anna Pigeon series, the parks where she works become major characters." Anna's character, too, is central. "Anna started out like me, but she has evolved into herself," Barr explained. "Anna's grown older and relies less on physical ability. She has grown more tolerant of others over the years. But she has also become more of a loner, more vulnerable."

In 2003, Barr published her first nonfiction title, the autobiographical Seeking Enlightenment … Hat by Hat: A Skeptic's Look at Religion. Relating a time in her life when she had no job, was divorced, and was searching for some meaning in her life, the author tells how she found acceptance at an Episcopal church, as well as a faith seasoned by skepticism and a continuing desire to find logical solutions to life. Wilkins, writing again in Booklist, praised the book for being "moving but never saccharine," and a Publishers Weekly reviewer reported that "Barr's sassy style, self-deprecating sense of humor and trenchant observations make for a good—and, yes, enlightening—read."



Booklist, July, 1984, review of Bittersweet, p. 1520; March 15, 1996, Emily Melton, review of Firestorm, p. 1242; February 15, 1997, Emily Melton, review of Endangered Species, p. 1006; February 15, 1998, John Rowen, review of Blind Descent, p. 986; April 15, 1999, Mary McCay, review of Blind Descent, p. 1542, and John Rowen, "The Booklist Interview: Nevada Barr," p. 1542; January 1, 2000, John Rowen, review of Deep South, p. 882; December 15, 2000, John Rowen, review of Blood Lure, p. 289; March 1, 2001, Karen Harris, review of Deep South, p. 1295; November 15, 2001, Jeanette Larson, review of Blood Lure, p. 592; December 1, 2001, Laurie Hartshorn, review of Blood Lure, p. 664; December 15, 2001, John Rowan, review of Hunting Season, p. 683; November 15, 2002, Mary Frances Wilkins, review of Flashback, p. 547; May 1, 2003, Mary Frances Wilkens, review of Seeking Enlightenment … Hat by Hat: A Skeptic's Look at Religion, p. 1506; November 15, 2003, Stephanie Zvirin, review of High Country, p. 547; January 1, 2005, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Hard Truth, p. 782.

Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2003, review of Nevada High Country, p. 1382; March 1, 2005, review of Hard Truth, p. 260.

Kliatt, March, 2002, Claire Rosser, review of Blood Lure, p. 13.

Library Journal, September 1, 1984, Sister Avila, review of Bittersweet, p. 1684; January, 2004, Nanci Milone Hill, review of High Country, p. 166.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 23, 1993, Charles Champlin, review of Track of the Cat, p. 8; April 28, 1996, Dick Lochte, review of Firestorm, p. 11.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 4, 2001, Dorman T. Shindler, "Nature's Beauty, Danger Enfold Mystery," review of Blood Lure, p. 6.

New York Times Book Review, April 17, 1994, Marilyn Stasio, review of A Superior Death, p. 19; April 2, 1995, Marilyn Stasio, review of Ill Wind, p. 25; March 24, 1996, Marilyn Stasio, review of Firestorm, p. 24; March 19, 2000, Marilyn Stasio, review of Deep South; February 4, 2001, Marilyn Stasio, review of Blood Lure.

People Weekly, February 5, 2001, Jean Reynolds, review of Blood Lure, p. 39.

Publishers Weekly, January 30, 1995, review of Ill Wind, p. 87; January 6, 1997, Paul Nathan, "Crimes against Nature," p. 35, and review of Endangered Species, p. 67; February 2, 1998, review of Blind Descent, p. 84; January 24, 2000, review of Deep South, p. 294; January 15, 2001, review of Blood Lure, p. 56; February 4, 2002, review of Hunting Season, p. 57; December 23, 2002, review of Flashback, p. 48; May 26, 2003, review of Seeking Enlightenment … Hat by Hat, p. 67; January 12, 2004, review of High Country, p. 40; February 14, 2005, review of Hard Truth, p. 57.

School Library Journal, July, 2000, review of Deep South, p. 130; June, 2004, Claudia Moore, review of High Country, p. 178.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), March 6, 1994, Dick Adler, review of A Superior Death, p. 6; April 2, 1995, Gary Dretzka, review of Ill Wind, p. 7; March 3, 1996, Dick Adler, review of Firestorm, p. 6.

Washington Post Book World, July 18, 1993, Paul Skenazy, review of Track of the Cat, p. 6; March 20, 1994, Paul Skenazy, review of A Superior Death, p. 6; April 21, 1996, Maureen Corrigan, review of Firestorm, p. 6.

Winston-Salem Journal, January 28, 2001, Linda Brinson, "Descriptions of Nature Make Tale All the Better in Latest Barr Mystery," review of Blood Lure, p. A18.

Women's Review of Books, January, 1995, Mimi Wesson, review of Track of the Cat, p. 22.


Authors on the Web, (November 7, 2006), brief biography of Nevada Barr.

Book Page, (March 1, 2001), Stephanie Swilley, "On the Trail with Nevada Barr," interview with the author; (June 1, 2003), Linda Stankard, "Mystery Writer Takes Life One Hat at a Time," interview with Nevada Barr.

Book Reporter, (November 7, 2006), Roz Shea, review of Hard Truth, Hunting Season, and High Country, Ava Dianne Day, review of Flashback, Jamie Engle, review of Blood Lure, and biographical information on Nevada Barr.

Mississippi Writer's Page, (November 7, 2006), brief biography of Nevada Barr.

Nevada Barr Web Site, (April 18, 2007).