Books: Dead Men Don't Wear Drab

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1996

Books: Dead Men Don't Wear Drab

Mystery writer Nevada Barr's stiff-brimmed recipe for murder
By John Galvin

It's after midnight on rural Mississippi's Natchez Trace Parkway, and Ranger Nevada Barr is cruising solo on the scenic road's loneliest stretch. Badge shining against her crisp green uniform, her Sig Sauer pistol holstered but ready, the slightly graying 44-year-old spots a swerving vehicle, flips on her roof lights, and coaxes the car to the shoulder. Inside, a bleary man slurs his innocence while beer glugs from a can jammed under his seat. After a breath test, Barr cuffs the guy and hauls him off to jail.

Granted, busting rubber-tongued drunks isn't exactly the payoff scene in Heat. But Barr, a ranger-turned-novelist inspired by this and more-frightening examples of crime in the national parks, has created a unique new genre: murder mysteries that play out among the mean hiking trails of America's favorite playgrounds. "Urban crime is moving into the parks," says Barr, "and that makes a nice matrix for a murder mystery."

Apparently so. Barr's first book, Track of the Cat, won the vaunted Agatha Award for mystery writing as well as a back-cover hurrah from Tony Hillerman himself. Her fourth, Firestorm, about a ranger who gets offed in California's Lassen Volcanic National Park, hits bookstores this spring.

Barr followed a roundabout route to writing fiction. After 18 years in the theater, she started rangering in Texas's Guadalupe Mountains National Park in 1989. "There were people I wanted to kill, and I'd wander around the backcountry figuring out how to get away with it," Barr says. Her Miss Marple became Anna Pigeon, a fortysomething ranger-sleuth who always lands in a job where somebody, usually a stiff-brim, gets bludgeoned with a wrench or drowned in an icy lake.

Barr gets around herself. She's now taking a year off to finish her next novel. After that she hopes to bag a plum posting at a peaceful park such as Montana's Glacier. Should the chief ranger there be worried that he'll someday get waxed in a Nevada Barr novel?

"I don't think so," says Barr. "I've never met him, so I can't think of any reason I'd want to kill him."

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