Review

Flashback

by Nevada Barr



When National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon starts wearing
dresses, that's a clue, or maybe more than a clue, a loudly
whispered hint, that big change is on the way. That particular
dress (I remember it well because she donned it in last year's
HUNTING SEASON) was red and she wore it to church --- a defiance of
tradition that was in true Anna spirit, which helped; the patent
leather heels didn't. And now we have FLASHBACK, which in spirit
and atmosphere is dangerously close to...well...southern
gothic.

FLASHBACK is half contemporary Anna Pigeon series mystery and half
Civil War historical mystery --- and both halves suffer from this
uneven marriage.

Anna has accepted a sudden, temporary assignment as Acting
Supervisor of Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas National Park. The
Dry Tortugas are claustrophobically small islands out in the
Atlantic, 70 miles east of Key West. She's taking the place of a
man who is having psychiatric inpatient care after suffering from
hallucinations and other nasty symptoms of temporary, or permanent,
insanity. Anna has snapped up this post in order to avoid thinking
about a proposal of marriage, back "home" in Natchez Trace.

Fort Jefferson was built in the mid-19th century and is a truly
creepy place to this very day, in spite of current air conditioning
and a few other modern improvements. By an enormous plot
coincidence, just as she's settling in for her assignment of
unknown duration, Anna receives a bunch of old letters from her
sister Molly, the psychiatrist in New York. It seems that Molly and
Anna have a dead relation whose husband was stationed at Fort
Jefferson during and immediately after the Civil War. In the
fashion of the times, the husband as commanding officer brought his
wife and her younger sister with him to the Fort. The wife's
letters to yet another sister back home constitute the historical
part of this book.

The contemporary mystery is considerably more up-to-date, with drug
money, Cuban immigrants, boat explosions and such. If it were not
for a spillover of language --- passive constructions, irritating
adverbs, etc. --- from the historical part into Anna Pigeon's part,
the things happening in the present could easily stand alone and
hold our attention. Midway through the book, Anna confronts her own
demons in a way that will have her faithful fans cheering, when she
figures out that someone is slipping drugs into her bottled water
(remember, she's on an island, so bottled water is not the luxury
it might seem otherwise). Ergo, it's altogether possible that the
Supervisory Ranger she's replacing didn't go nuts, but that he was
drugged too. The question, of course, is why and who.

The historical story is ingenious, if tedious. Barr has concocted a
scenario in which three of the men who were convicted of treason in
the assassination of President Lincoln have been sent to serve out
their prison sentences at Fort Jefferson, which has not seen active
duty as a military outpost and is serving as a prison instead.
Primary among the conspirators is the infamous Dr. Samuel Mudd (as
in "his name is mud", which more accurately for the time would have
read "his name is Mudd" -- the man is the origin of the once-common
expression), who preys upon the youngest of the two sisters, Anna's
relations. To Barr's credit, her research and reproduction of the
conditions at the historic fort are both impeccable. My cavil is
with the writing style and, in particular, with its spillover into
the rest of the book. Also, due to the truncation of the
old-letters format, the characterizations in this part of the book
suffer. Somehow the juxtaposition of Anna with her ancestor Raffia
(real name, Raffaela) manages to work to the detriment of both,
even though the author most likely intended to point up their
differences in Anna's favor.

The elements that have worked so well for previous Anna Pigeon
novels are scarce but present, and they still work. For example,
the underwater scenes in FLASHBACK, while nowhere near as chilling
as those in A SUPERIOR DEATH (where Anna also spends a lot of time
underwater), are excellent and will scare the swim fins off you.
Dry Tortugas Park is lovingly and faithfully portrayed. All the
characters in the contemporary chapters are fully drawn,
interesting people presented in such a way that you are curious to
know what drives them.

But the unevenness with which the book proceeds is unsettling and
the cliffhanger chapters (a gothic convention) are especially
tiresome. What we have here may simply be a good author who is
champing at the bit of her own successful series, wanting to break
out into something else and her editors are indulging her (while
not editing). FLASHBACK is, after all, the 11th Anna Pigeon book
and Nevada Barr's 12th published novel. Yet readers want the Anna
they know and love and, aye, there's the rub. I expect I'm not
alone in my discomfort with Anna wearing dresses and going to
church and, for heaven's sake, maybe even getting married to a
sheriff who's also an ordained Episcopal priest (and who,
mercifully, is in this book only at a distance). OK, so real people
grow and change, especially as they age. So why is it irritating
when a series character does the same in fiction? Well because,
see, it's fiction and that's why we read it --- because it's not
real life and so we can get justice and other important yearned-for
stuff.

Nevada Barr is a talented writer. I will read her next book, no
matter what it is. But please oh please, if it's about Anna Pigeon,
let her leave the girlie dresses home in the closet.

Reviewed by Ava Dianne Day on January 22, 2011

Flashback
by Nevada Barr

  • Publication Date: February 3, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley
  • ISBN-10: 0425194493
  • ISBN-13: 9780425194492