I have finished Nevada Barr’s new murder mystery set on Isle Royale, entitled Winter Study. Now, what can I tell you about it that you might not get from the reviews at amazon.com? First, if you love Isle Royale, it’s worth reading. Barr brings the island in winter to life reasonably well, at least as winter happens on the west end, the areas around Washington Harbor and the Feldman Ridge. Her descriptions of place and setting are often not all they could be, but she has never been all that good at description anyway. Her first mystery set on the island, Superior Death, lacked in its descriptions of the island, too. Barr also makes a variety of geographic mistakes and exaggerations, though they are not so important as to be ruinous. (The photo is a satellite image of Isle Royale in later winter, 2008.) Nor does the famed scientific study of moose and wolves itself get much attention from her. Barr does a quick sketch of the moose-wolf research effort and quickly leaves its nature and purpose behind for her far-fetched plot of rape and murder. That plot is a dark, wild one, even darker and more outlandish than her first mystery set on Isle Royale. A number of readers at amazon.com have noted how violent and disturbing some of the scenes and plot elements are. Yet, though I might be getting callous, I found them standard fare for the modern murder mystery.
The story concerns the deaths of two people out of six involved in one of the recent annual winter studies of the moose and wolf populations, a research effort which has become famous worldwide. Is it as famous as Barr excitedly proclaims several times in the book? Probably not. But it’s somehow nice to delude ourselves that everyone knows about and loves Isle Royale as we who know her do, which is far from true, even in Michigan. The plot turns on the premise that the Department of Homeland Security is considering opening the park in winter for reasons of state security. The consideration of this question brings a couple of newcomers to the winter study, in addition to the wildlife biologists who conduct it annually, and puts in motion the elements of the weird and elaborate revenge-murder story.
As usual, Barr writes with her finger-snapping jauntiness. But she tries to be so witty, so hip, so knowing, that she can become tedious -- and even confusing. As typical with her work, she delves deeply into the psychology of her main character, Anna Pigeon, but, strangely, she does not portray her evil-doers or her secondary characters to any great depth. A boatload of highly implausible events take place on the island during the few days that our heroine is present. They could happen, I suppose, but you know they wouldn’t -- and the chances of all of them occurring within the space of a week are nil. But readers of murder mysteries accept outlandish events as a matter of course. Nonetheless, the book begins to read like a soap opera and actually starts to lurch headlong toward the ridiculous. Yet Barr manages to keep most of it entertaining and keep it from falling off the cliff into complete absurdity. The idea of Isle Royale being the subject of security concerns is not something I am well versed in. So I don’t know how plausible it might be that the island and the wolf-moose study could face the sort of problems that Barr imagines they might.
In sum, if you like Nevada Barr’s jaunty style and psycho-probing, you’ll surely like Winter Study, assuming you can take the dark nature of the crimes committed on and off the island. If you don’t know her work, get ready for a wild ride with a lot of intent study of Anna’s mind and moods, and of small words and gestures among the six characters. But don’t look for some sort of engaging overview of the natural world of Isle Royale in winter. Barr seems little interested in that.