Chronologically, “The Rope” stands as the first book in the Anna Pigeon series by Nevada Barr. The novel focuses on Anna as she flees Manhattan in the wake of the sudden death of her husband, Zach, and takes a seasonal job as an assistant in the National Park around Lake Powell, Utah. Anna goes on an impromptu solo hike without adequate preparation or telling anyone where she's going. She stumbles across three men raping a young girl. Next thing she knows, she wakes up naked at the bottom of a solution hole or natural sinkhole with a bruised skull and dislocated shoulder. Fear sets in when she discovers the body of the girl with her in the hole, who is identified by a bracelet as “Kay”.
The novel weaves through several viewpoints – a female ranger named Jenny who has an unhealthy crush on Anna and Regis, a personnel manager with his own inner demons – often moving back and forth in time, sometimes without warning so key parts of the story is told out of sequence. Anna manages to escape the sinkhole, but finds it an uphill battle to convince her superiors or the police that she didn't dream up the story, an effort made complicated by her penchant for holding things back, which causes some to distrust her account until more bodies start showing up. Once things die down, Anna decides to take control of her life by getting in shape. At the end of the story, the real villain emerges, leading to a confrontation while rock climbing in a “crack” along one of the gullies or canyons.
I had never read any of Nevada Barr's books until this weekend, when I picked up “The Rope”, the seventeenth novel in the Anna Pigeon series. It started off promising. The heavy emphasis on character struck me in the opening chapter. I liked that. The novel seemed to have some meat on the bones. The characters were rounded and believable, though Regis and his wife Bethy skirted the edge of the plausible. The odd pacing and sometimes confusing prose – more than once I had to reread paragraphs or several pages to figure out who was talking, when was it taking place, and how did Anna get in this new predicament – were mild annoyances. The greatest strength of the novel, other than the good character portraits and the strong female leads, were the loving and detailed descriptions of the deserts and canyons around Lake Powell. The greatest negatives lay in the occasionally confusing text and surprisingly flat plot. The drama was rather understated. The suspense never reached the promised heights. Anna escaped the sinkhole so early and predictably in the novel it felt like a letdown. From the midpoint on, the novel depended on the characters to keep things moving, though at the cost of seeming unfocused and disorganized until the finale in the last quarter of the book.
Several holes marred the plot. For some reason the one the really bugged me was the lack of alarm or interest over Anna's disappearance. Because Anna had kept so much to herself, not opening up to anyone, when she vanished everyone assumed she grew tired of the job and left without telling anyone – so no one bothered to check or ask questions, except for Jenny and Regis, each for their own reasons. That struck me as odd. Sure the villain had carried off Anna's bags to make it seem like she left, but really how often do you see someone quit a job without leaving an address to send their paycheck or giving some sort of notice? And when Regis told his story about how he found Anna, I couldn't believe the other rangers and local law enforcement didn't have their spider senses tingling like mad over the laughably implausible account of how he found Anna's sinkhole at night from among the hundreds dotting the landscape.
Despite those flaws, I still enjoyed the novel, though not as much as I had expected. It's good solid entertainment and it did keep me turning pages even though at one or two points I nearly set it aside. In her defense, Nevada Barr tried to construct a “realistic” plot as opposed to a traditional styled one. Several contrived plot situations undermined that goal, subtracting from what started out as an above average mystery-thriller.
I still recommend the book, if not warmly.
Rating: B -