A Wild Story Arises in Winter on Isle Royale

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.


Ben Kilpela said...

Hi, again. I wanted to reprint the best of the reviews at amazon.com, at least in my judgment:

An above-average mystery set in an interesting location, April 29, 2008 By Arthur Digbee, Indianapolis, IN, USA (3 of 6 people found the following review helpful):

This mystery takes place on Isle Royale, in the middle of Lake Superior, in the middle of winter. This national park is closed from
October to April except for the personnel of the "Winter Study." This is the world's longest scientific study and focuses on wolf-moose interactions (predatory-prey systems) over the long term. To my surprise, the retired members of the study appear by name, while two others are "fictionalized" (only weakly so in the case of the one I've met).

Nevada Barr and her fictional persona, Anna Pigeon, both hate to be cold. Not surprisingly, the sense of being cold pervades the book. Even so, Barr treats the cold inconsistently, rushing the characters inside in some situations while letting them stay outside endlessly in other cases. Some characters even perform feats outside while naked or scantily clad, which will doubtless help Barr sell the movie rights.

If you know the island, you'll find little annoyances as you go along. Some could be typos -- saying "west" when she means "east" and sometimes mixing up the names and ranges of wolf packs, for example. Barr has a cavalier attitude toward distance. While one expert skier reasonably covers a lot of ground in the story, several characters *hike* more than 20 miles a day with packs, through snow, in heavy winter clothes. There are also errors of geography, such as
switchbacks where there aren't switchbacks and a cliff where there
isn't a cliff. I see that other reviewers thought that Barr conveyed both the wildness of the place and the depth of the cold well, so that small, odd minority of us who like winter camping in wildernesses should not complain too much.

What about the story? The structure of the plot will be familiar to anyone who has seen Scooby Doo episodes, with a partial twist in the identity of the villain. The narrative moves along nicely and has the misdirection essential to a mystery though it also has too much
telegraphing of the real villain. Once again, our heroine performs
extraordinary feats more appropriate to the "Die Hard" movies than to a national park ranger.

For overall plot and characterizations, this book belongs in the "above average" category of the Anna Pigeon novels. Like most of the series, it has a strong sense of place - - though that comes with minor annoyances if you happen to know the place.


O.K. Now it's me, Ben Kilpela, again. Among the amazon reviews, this review most closely matches my own take on the book and points out various thoughts I had but didn't mention, such as the telegraphing of the villain and the many exaggerations of geography and human behavior. The only big difference is that I don't think Barr, as I say in my review, does a particularly good job of describing or evoking the setting. It isn't worthless, just not particularly strong, at least for this kind of fiction. Digbee doesn't mention Barr's apparent lack of interest in the science of the wolf-moose study itself. Other thoughts and comments are welcome.

Ben Kilpela said...

Ben here, again. I meant in my comment that Barr does NOT do a particularly good job of describing the island.