Review: Flashback by Nevada Barr

Flashback is really two books in one, told via alternating chapters. Both stories take place on a tiny group of islands off the coast of Key West, Florida which during the Civil War was the site of Fort Jefferson, a Union prison, and is now the Dry Tortugas National Park. In the present-day story National Parks Ranger Anna Pigeon has taken a temporary job at the park because the permanent supervisor has had to leave quickly due to mental illness. Anna was quite pleased to have an opportunity to escape Mississippi as her boyfriend has just proposed and she is not sure how she feels about the idea of marriage. In addition to her routine duties she is, as the book opens, called upon to undertake a search, including scuba diving, for a missing colleague which soon turns into a more macabre investigation. The second story is a historical one. Anna’s sister sends her some old family letters which were written by one of their relatives who happened (in a stretch of credibility) to have been stationed at the Fort with her husband towards the end of the Civil War. In a series of letters to her sister in the North she tells a story of young love gone awry and the incarceration of several men who had been convicted of being part of the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

There really is nothing much connecting the two stories so it felt to me as if I was reading two entirely separate books a chapter at a time which is not something I would ever do. Just as I felt like I was becoming interested in one story I’d be jerked out and thrown into the other, only to be rudely pulled out of that one a little while later and hurled back into the first. I have read and enjoyed a few books which use this kind of convention but here I never felt fully immersed in either story. I think it was the fact that there was nothing at all connecting the two (aside from the awkward coincidence of the narrators’ family link) and the historical story in particular was slow going (16 hours is long for an audio book), and was more of a gothic romance than mystery until the very end. A big part of the enjoyment of historical fiction for me is becoming immersed for a time in the language and social conventions of the period which just does not happen when you’re being pulled back to the 21st century at the end of every chapter. There were some fascinating and (I think from my limited knowledge of American history) accurate details about the period, and a creative imagining of what life might have been like for a woman in a harsh, man’s world but their impact on me wasn’t as strong as it might have been had this been a story in its own right.

The present-day story suffered from the interruptions too, as any suspense built up towards the end of a chapter dissipated by the time I’d spent another half-hour or so listening to details of life on an 1860’s prison island. However, Anna Pigeon was, as always, an engaging character who rarely acts as expected but is always very believable in the way she thinks and behaves. She doggedly pursues her investigation, despite almost non-existent communication to the mainland and a growing wariness to trust her fellow islanders. As I have come to rely on with Barr’s writing, the story makes much use of its physical location, both in detail and more broadly, to the point where I almost feel like I have visited the location myself. Why some enterprising American tourist association hasn’t coerced Barr to become their spokeswoman (spokeswriter?) is beyond me: she would attract tourists by the bus load.

This is the fourth Nevada Barr/Anna Pigeon book I’ve read and I did enjoy aspects of it almost as much as the other novels I’ve read. Though for me the dueling storylines was not a terribly satisfactory plot device I like the fact that Barr tries new things to keep her long-running series fresh, and each story in its own right was well told and had a very authentic sense of place. I shall continue to hop around this series, which seems not to suffer from my reading the books out of order, as my mood and the books’ sale price at audible dictates.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I have reviewed three other Nevada Barr books, Hunting Season, Borderline and Burn

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 3/5
Narrator Barbara Rosenblat
Publisher Recorded Books [this edition 2009, originally 2003]
ISBN N/A (downloaded from audible.com)
Length 15 hours 53 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book series number 10 in the Anna Pigeon series
Source I bought it

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6 Responses to Review: Flashback by Nevada Barr

  1. Bernadette – Thanks for this review. Sometimes dual timelines/story lines can pull the reader out of both stories instead of engaging the reader in either story. I’m sorry to hear that happened for you with this one. Still, as you say, the Anna Pigeon character is a great one, and the premise (except for that tenuous link between story lines) sounds interesting.

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  2. Kathy D. says:

    I have liked Anna Pigeon since I picked up Nevada Barr’s first book starring this park ranger, which I even purchased. I have learned about geographical areas of the U.S., and environmental issues in nearly every book. I have grabbed these books off the library shelves.
    However, I could not finish this book — for many of the reasons listed above. Nothing connected for me. Nothing pulled me into the story.
    That doesn’t mar my opinion of this series, not at all. I just moved on to the next book, and everything was fine. Anna was again center-stage, new regions were discovered, and plots moved along.

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  3. Thanks Kathy – nice to know I am not the only one who struggled with the book – I doubt I would have finished it in print form – as an audio book it was a decent enough companion as I undertook my household chores this weekend but that’s about it.

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  4. Kathy D. says:

    I should have said this above, but I feel a “post-good-book” slump coming on as I read the literary mystery, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. I can’t put it down, not because it’s a thriller, but because it’s a well-told — dare I say literary — story, with good characters and going back to 1960s, 1970’s rural South. And although I am on page 70 and have 208 pages to read, I can feel it coming on, like a tornado.
    I just read a Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe, which was funny, light, did I say funny? Lovely? Easy reading. Now it’s Franklin’s book, his darn good book after which I will crash, maybe calling for more Nesbo? Nesser? Indridason? Or another Sjowall/Wahloo?
    This is a serious bout coming on. I must have a plan! Or maybe I’ll read the alphabet books by Sue Grafton or the C.J. Box books.

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