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The Rope by Nevada Barr

As an author, one of the major problems once you’ve invested in a series character is the dilemma whether to kill him or her off. As Arthur Conan Doyle discovered when he had Sherlock Holmes disappear in the vicinity of the Reichenbach Falls, the complaints of your loyal paying customers make it difficult to keep a good hero in the bottom drawer. In a way, it’s even worse when the author decides to go down the prequel route. Up to this point, we’ve all been on the edge of our seats, worried this is the day when it all might stop. Even Agatha Christie killed off Hercule Poirot, although it was years before she allowed the book to be published. But if the author goes back to the day when it all began, you know the character’s body is protected by authorial kevlar and teflon has been applied to his or her reputation. No matter what happens, this character is untouchable.

This sad reality removes any vestige of tension from the scenes when our hero’s life is threatened. We know from the first words on the page that he or she will escape certain death and identify the wrongdoers. We simply wait to see how the escapes are stage-managed. This explains why the first third of The Rope by Nevada Barr is merely interesting and not gripping. Our heroine has the misfortune to stumble upon a rape when out for a walk in Glen Canyon National Park and is dropped down a hole for her troubles. She can’t climb out so the only option is to survive and hope to physically overpower whoever comes down to gloat over her as she lies defeated. Conveniently this happens in the dead of night so she can’t see who it is. This leaves us the remaining two-thirds of the book for her to work out whodunnit to her and to the others when several bodies are dug up or pulled from the water of Lake Powell.

Nevada Barr justly proud of her green background

Well, for those of you familiar with Nevada Barr, this is the origin story for Anna Pigeon. There are sixteen other books in the series to tell the story of what happened after she became a law enforcement officer with the US National Park Service. Here’s where it all began. There are several interesting features to this novel. The first is as a study of how the victims of crime can deal with the emotional fall-out. In The Rope, we have two such characters. Anna herself is the classic victim caught up in a situation where she has no control but, when she finds herself trapped, she’s able to maintain a positive attitude. After the rescue, she avoids the traditional post-traumatic stress disorder we so often see in both fiction and among real-world soldiers, fire fighters, police officers and others exposed to acute danger. Through an internalised process of cognitive behavioural therapy — she imagines herself talking to her sister who’s a psychologist — she actually grows emotionally stronger. The second character is Jenny Gorman who was gang-raped at college and has been dealing with her reaction to it over the intervening years.

Jenny leads us into the second area of interest in that she has adjusted to life as a lesbian, keeping men at a social distance. We may think of this as a decision reinforced by her experience as a rape victim and, in part, it sees us back in the same territory Nevada Barr first explored in Bittersweet. Although the characters in this latest novel do not engage in actual sexual contact more serious than a somewhat violently stolen kiss, there’s considerable exploration of emotions by and about Jenny as the explicitly gay ranger. This runs alongside the internal monologue as Anna also wonders about her sexuality given her emotions are tinged with guilt over the death of her husband. It’s brave for a mainstream author to deal so openly with issues of sex, gender roles and sexuality. No matter what level of self-deception we might prefer to practise, homophobia remains normative among significant portions of the community. It might even emerge to restrict sales of this book which would be unfortunate. For all the lack of tension in the early part, this book does build as an effective thriller and deserves to be judged on its merits.

The best way to approach The Rope is as a thriller rather than as a mystery. Although there’s some degree of uncertainty as to who’s ultimately responsible for what has been happening in this part of the back of beyond, that’s somewhat secondary to the emotional journey Anna makes from an untested city “girl” to a woman determined to become a law enforcement officer in the great outdoors. This is captured in the thought, “I believe more women should carry guns. I believe armed women will make the world a better place. Women need to come to think of themselves not as victims but as dangerous.” I’m not entirely sure this would go down too well as a manifesto for the NRA, what with most gun-toting men being more of the macho persuasion, but it does capture the spirit of this book. Nevada Barr writes with a pleasing directness about woman, their gender roles and how they might transcend the prejudices of male expectations as to how they should behave. It may be something as simple as whether they should pump iron in the gym. There are stereotypes as to whether muscular women are sexually attractive or physically threatening. Or how they should dress. There’s cultural significance if a woman wears black in different social contexts. Or whether they should have power over men through serving as law enforcement officers — a direct challenge to the patriarchal assumptions that underpin behaviour in some parts of the community. Nevada Barr discusses these and comparable issues with honesty and a clear sense of social understanding.

This book gives us a chance to watch layers of urban socialisation stripped away until we come down to the irreducible core of Anna as a person or, metaphorically, as a force of nature. On balance, I think her practical survival training episodes go on slightly too long, but it’s always fascinating to watch the ugly duckling become a swan. Put all this together and The Rope is definitely of interest to those who are following the series character Anna Pigeon.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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