Barr, Nevada

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BARR, Nevada

Born 1952, in Nevada

Married and divorced

Nevada Barr writes mysteries set in the unusual landscape of the National Park Service. Born in Nevada and raised in Susanville, California, 80 miles outside Reno, Barr received her B.A. from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and her M.A. from the University of California at Irvine. Her father was a pilot and her mother a pilot, mechanic, and carpenter.

After her education ended, Barr pursued an acting career. She performed in the Classic Stage Company in New York City and appeared in off-Broadway shows. She also acted in television commercials and in corporate and industrial films. In 1978, during her acting career, Barr became serious about writing fiction. Her husband at the time, also an actor, eventually decided to quit the theater for the park service, and Barr joined him, ending her 18-year foray into acting. She assumed a position as a law enforcement ranger at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. She subsequently worked as a ranger at Michigan's Isle Royale, Colorado's Mesa Verde, and Mississippi's Natchez Trace Parkway National Parks, among others. Many of these were later featured in her mysteries. She continued as a ranger long after she had become a successful novelist.

Barr's first published book, Bittersweet (1984), is not a mystery but a historical novel, one of several she wrote but the only one released. It is about a Pennsylvania woman in the 1870s who is accused of having an affair with a young girl. She leaves her town and meets an abused wife with whom she begins a relationship. The two move to Nevada and set up an independent but difficult life as innkeepers. Although some reviewers felt the characters were flat, most praised the historical details and unusual premise.

Nine years passed before the publication of Barr's next book, Track of the Cat (1993), which marked the debut of her series protagonist, park ranger Anna Pigeon. The novel earned the Anthony and Agatha awards for best first mystery. Barr and Anna are similar in some ways—both are National Park Service rangers; both have a sister Molly (who becomes a beloved character in the series through her phone conversations with Anna), although Anna's Molly is a New York psychiatrist while Barr's sister is a pilot; and both are single women, with Anna losing her husband in an accident and Barr being divorced.

Some reviewers cited Track of the Cat for its "overripe" language and uneven writing, but all praised it for its realistic, beautiful, and sometimes activist descriptions of nature. The New York Times Book Review noted, "Although her human characters could use some stuffing, Ms. Barr describes plant and animal life with a naturalist's eye for detail and with an environmentalist's fury at the destruction of the wilderness and its creatures."

Barr is known for her colorful secondary characters and exciting endings, and for allowing her readers to share the experiences and point of view of the strong yet vulnerable Anna. "Barr develops a complex, credible, and capable heroine who believes in truth and justice while remaining conscious of the ambiguities of human existence," a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote.

Barr's second Anna Pigeon book is A Superior Death (1994), which takes place at Isle Royale. Ill Wind (1995) takes Anna to Mesa Verde, where she assists FBI Agent Frederick Stanton in solving a crime in the park and with whom she starts to develop a relationship, marking the beginning of Barr's increasing focus on human interaction. Anna is noted for being a three-dimensional character with human foibles; this is demonstrated in Ill Wind by her struggle with remembrances of her husband and her tendency to drink too much.

In Firestorm (1996), Barr creates a locked-room mystery in which a crime occurs among a finite group of people. She creates this situation in the context of a forest fire in Northern California's Lassen Volcanic National Park. Each of a group of rangers hides in a personal fireproof tent to escape the onslaught of fire. When the inferno passes after 12 minutes, one of the characters has been stabbed to death.

Endangered Species (1997) takes place in Cumberland National Seashore off the coast of Georgia. "Barr possesses that rare combination of talents: she can write a beautiful sentence and create a first-rate mystery," wrote Publishers Weekly. "[She] evokes the minimally developed island's shimmering beauty while spinning an absorbing tale of danger and deceit that embraces a realistic description of conservation work and a diverse, engaging cast."

Barr's next novel, Blind Descent (1998) is set in New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns and is emblematic of the power of the author's descriptions of nature. In the New York Times Book Review, Marilyn Stasio commented on Anna's claustrophobic excursion into an underground cave: "Barr's descriptions of this Stygian underworld—so beautiful, so mysterious and so treacherous—have a stunning visceral quality, largely because of her heroine's affinity with the natural world."

Anna visits New York in Barr's 1999 novel, Liberty Falling. While supporting her hospitalized sister, Molly, and staying with a ranger friend at the Statue of Liberty, Anna is faced with a crime to solve. Like Barr's other books, Liberty Falling is replete with vivid descriptions of a park ranger's job and the surrounding environment, as well as a page-turning plot featuring a realistic female character.


Reference Works:

CA 161 (1998).

Other reference:

National Parks (Sept./Oct. 1995); NYTBR (18 Apr. 1993, 17 Apr. 1994, 2 Apr. 1995, 13 Apr. 1997, 5 Apr. 1998); Outside (Apr. 1996); PW (6 July 1984, 4 Jan. 1993, 14 Feb. 1994, 30 Jan. 1995, 6 Jan. 1996, 5 Feb. 1996, 24 Mar. 1997, 2 Feb. 1998); Southern Living (1999).