Review: Burn

This review originally appeared on Buried Under Books.

Warning: This book deals with the sexual enslavement of children. While Barr does not indulge in graphic, prolonged descriptions, there are scenes near the end that leave little to the imagination. If the subject matter disturbs you, proceed with caution.

Burn
Nevada Barr
Minotaur Books, August 2010
9780312614560
ARC from Creatures ‘n Crooks.

In a city she was not familiar with—at least not in any but a surface, tourist sense—it would be too easy to stumble into organized crime networks and get hurt or killed. When people thought of organized crime, it was the Mafia or the tongs or, in recent years, the banks, careless of whom they destroyed in their grasping for money. The big guys were scary, but the networks most regular people ran afoul of were the small-time franchises, pimps who “owned” prostitutes and prostitutes who “owned” street corners and drug dealers who “owned” territories. The criminal equivalent of mom-and-pop stores. Every city, and a lot of small towns, were riddled with them.

Burn, Nevada Barr’s sixteenth Anna Pigeon mystery, is something of a departure from previous installments. On leave of absence from the National Park Service, Anna is taking some much-needed R&R with a friend and fellow ranger in New Orleans, where she spends her days visiting popular tourist spots and her nights pondering her future and encroaching middle age. Intrigue didn’t get the message about Anna’s vacation, however. A strange encounter with a young man who turns out to be leasing an apartment from Anna’s friend, followed by the discovery of a dead pigeon wrapped in a rag marked with strange symbols, soon has Anna browsing neighborhood voodoo shops and visiting a Bourbon Street strip joint.

In Seattle, Clare Sullivan returns home from a midnight run to the neighborhood pharmacy to find her two daughters and pet dog missing. Shortly after the police arrive to investigate, Clare’s house explodes, killing a police officer and, to Clare’s horror and disbelief, her husband and daughters. The police immediately finger Clare as the prime suspect, but before they can make an arrest she goes into hiding, disguising her appearance and hopping a freight train out of town.

When Anna’s and Clare’s stories intersect, the real mystery begins to take shape. Did Clare’s girls really die in that explosion; if not, then where were they, and who took them? Just who is Jordan? What goes on in the “fancy house” Candy, a developmentally-disabled dancer at the strip club Anna visits, remembers from her childhood—a childhood that Anna is appalled to learn was only a couple of years ago?

I’ve only read a handful of Anna Pigeon books, so I’m not quite as knowledgeable about the character or any of the usual patterns Barr follows as someone who’s read the entire series might be. Those I have read I was drawn to by the setting, and Barr does a masterful job of describing the Crescent City. No doubt it helps that Barr lives in New Orleans, though at the same time I have to say that I think her descriptions were a bit florid at times. Still, I can appreciate wanting to do right by one’s hometown, especially after the damage wreaked by Hurricane Katrina. If Barr wants to engage in a little tourism promotion, I’m not going to complain too much.

What I also have to praise about Barr is how she has allowed her protagonist to grow and, most importantly, age, over the course of the series. I’ve read far too many mystery series where time seems irrelevant to the main character. In all of those that immediately come to mind, the main character was a man, so the fact that in Burn we have a middle-aged woman protagonist who feels and looks her age was a welcome change to this middle-aged woman reader. Not only that, but when Anna and Clare join forces, we have two women at center stage, and no men ride to their rescue in the grand finale. My eyebrows went up a bit at how much abuse both women took during the climactic sequence—getting kicked in the face, falling down stairs, being shot at—and dished out in turn, but it was still nice to see the role of the cavalry played by women.

I was somewhat disappointed in the way the story wrapped up. For example, Clare was very clearly coming unhinged, if not already there, and while Barr did a good job conveying her slow-burning breakdown throughout the story, by the end her reintegration, if even that, seemed too quick, too neat. I’m no psychologist, but she seemed a good candidate for multiple personality disorder to me and I found the end of her character arc hard to believe.

I was also disappointed in the resolution of the child-sex ring storyline. I can’t really explain how without resorting to spoilers, so I’ll simply say that I found the apparent absence of long-term consequences troubling.

Ultimately, I have mixed feelings about Burn. It was well-written, particularly in the use of setting and the characterizations. The story was intriguingly multilayered and I thought the way Anna’s and Clare’s storylines came together was done very well (though I did figure out one small part of the mystery fairly early on). On the other hand, I found the subject matter quite disturbing—had I known what was involved beforehand, I probably wouldn’t have volunteered to read this book—and the resolution left something to be desired. If the subject matter is not a deterrent, however, this is a fine addition to the Anna Pigeon series. I thus recommend Burn with reservations.

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