Having waited for this book with such anticipation and even purchased it, finally, as a kind of reward to myself for my patience, I wish I could say that I enjoyed it. It is the weakest of the series since Liberty Falling, which I nearly didn't finish.
The novel returns us to Natchez Trace Parkway, Anna's current home, after her stint in Glacier National Park, recounted in the last book (Blood Lure). All the familiar elements from the previous Natchez Trace novel, Deep South, are here, but on the whole the new novel is much inferior to either of its immediate predecessors. A friend pointed out that it's the first novel "without an animal scene." I was caught a bit flat-footed, because I hadn't noticed that there is "always a major animal scene, like the alligator in Deep South." I'm not even convinced, actually (animal in Firestorm?), although it makes sense that there would be an animal that each book might focus on, just as each focuses on a specific park. The turtles in Endangered Species, the cougar in The Track of the Cat, the grizzly in Blood Lure.
But whether there has always been a key animal or not, there sure enough is no "animal scene" here (unless you count most of a poached deer) and that points, if only metaphorically, to a big piece of the problem. Like the previous runt of the litter, Liberty Falling, there is little here of what makes the Anna Pigeon novels appeal. No "park," if you will. No sense of landscape and place. (Note: Yes, there is a "park" in Liberty Falling. But it only qualifies because the Park Service says it does.) The mystery has seldom been the strong point in these books (Firestorm and Blood Lure are exceptions), and here again, the murder is pretty hokey--puzzling but not very interesting--and the solution sketchy at best. But setting, and the feistiness of the heroine, always kept the books strong. Here we have little except Anna's neurotic love life to entertain us.
But the story: A local nobody, just another redneck Bubba, is found dead on Park land under circumstances suggesting that he was into SM and died while engaging in indoor sports that involved bondage. Nearby is a hint that he may have been killed by some religious conservative for his sins. We don't buy any of it for an instant. This is a guy whose idea of kinky sex would be watching dogs get it on. The very idea of him playing with mail-order restraints is beyond incongruous. And all this seems even less likely the more we learn about him. So what's the deal?
Early in the novel, Anna is inexplicably attacked by three guys poaching deer, and nobody except us, gentle reader, seems to smell a plot thread there. Pretty soon, we get some Faulkneresque miscegenating subplots, including a photograph that shows a black guy standing next to a white guy, with the black guy identified as "Unk Restin," and nobody (except us, gentle reader) seems to think of the possibility that "Unk" is short for "Uncle" (ominous Yoknapawtaphan chord in moss-bestrewn distance). The connection between the poachers and the murders becomes obvious to no one, at around page 170 (just past halfway), except us (gentle reader). And the identity of the key bad guy may not be obvious at that point, but I guarantee that if you are paying attention you will get it way before Anna does. In fact, when she was walking into his trap, hoary plot devices clanking all around, I found myself thinking of that chestnut of horror films, when the heroine, convinced that there are monsters all through the woods around the dark house, trapped alone at night, hears a noise outside and, of course, opens a window to look out and see what made it.... (The title The Howling was probably not meant to be a double entendre.)
The accepted wisdom is that these series books have to come out one a year or the series loses momentum. The pattern is Month 1 (usually between December and March), publish hardcover. Month 11, issue paperback, with preview pages from new novel at back. Month 1 or so of next year, new novel, with the old paperback and the new hardcover turning up no more than a couple of months apart. It's clockwork. If you have the reputation of, say, Tony Hillerman, you can take longer and get away with it. Hillerman averages two years between books, I think, and sometimes more. If you have the talent of James Lee Burke, you can keep the quality even, especially if you grant yourself the luxury of alternating between two series, one (Dave Robicheaux) excellent and the other (Billy Bob Holland) merely exceptional. If you can't sustain it, you accept the inevitable, as Thomas Perry did, and retire the character for a while. And if you are willing to be commoditized, to pay more attention to the publishing formulas than to producing quality work, books like Hunting Season are the result.
The irritating thing about books like this is not the author's failure to measure up to our expectations. Everybody has an off day, so to speak. It's the hangers-on who are irritating, the "support team" with more interest in the commodity than the author's reputation. They encourage the embarrassment that books like this will eventually become, by failing to tell the writer that this one is, well, pretty weak and could use another draft. St. Martin's Minotaur series provides editorial oversight that is insulting to author and audience; looking at the editorial quality of the books, one has to imagine some upper management snob pointing out that, "They're just mysteries, you know."
The very first sentence of the book is a cheap trick of this sort. "The priest was droning on inexorably...." Remember that sentence when you discover, two pages later, that "the priest" is Paul Davidson, Anna's beau and not likely, from what we know of him, to be "droning." This is Barr not listening to her own voice. Either that or exercising pretty bad judgment. She wants to spring on us that "the priest" is Paul, so she arbitrarily withholds that information. Neither Anna nor the Anna-favoring narrator would refer to Paul as "the priest," much less call his performance of the Epicopal marriage service "droning." 'Nuff said.
The book is not as bad as my irritation makes it sound. It is, like some blind dates, "Ok." But "Ok" isn't much to deliver for a year of work and a price tag of 25 bucks. Unfortunately, Hunting Season has nothing to recommend it but loyalty. If you like Nevada Barr's fiction, then read this book. Buy a copy and give her a couple bucks in royalties. But if you've never read one of the Anna Pigeon novels, and you start with this one, you will wonder what all the fuss is about. Don't do it. Go find Firestorm, or Blind Descent, or the solid and promising first Natchez Trace novel, Deep South. Save this one for later. Or give it a pass entirely.
Buy Hunting Season at Amazon.com.
Some links for more information on Barr: