Monday, September 04, 2017


Glacier National Park
(West side currently in flames.)

Nevada Barr thinks up good gimmicks.  Her main “umbrella” is the notion of a female park ranger who gets moved from one area to another and has to solve a major murder in each national park where she’s assigned, which means that the reader learns a lot of “facts” about each place, a pleasure of good books with strong environments.  There’s also a strong conservation theme in each story.

In this book, “Blood Lure”, the story happens in Glacier National Park close to Flattop Mountain, just south of the continguous Waterton Peace Park on the Canadian side.  I’m going to tell you the gimmick of this plot right now, so if you don’t want to know, stop reading.

Glacier bears are protein-deprived and thus half the size of the Alaskan Kodiak bears who are so stuffed with salmon that they will come and sit peacefully by humans.  This is not typical but does happen.
This second vid account is more characteristic of a Montana attack, though this is a version with a lot of good luck and savvy on the part of the victim, a tough bold character.

Barr’s “hook” is that she introduces a giant Kodiak bear into a Glacier grizzly context.  The bear is based on “Bart the Bear”, an actual Kodiak raised and trained by Doug and Lynne Seus.  The bear starred in many movies, even making them possible, certainly more convincing.  Bob Scriver made a sculpture of Bart, commissioned by Doug and Lynne, but it was after I was gone, so I never met Bart.

There’s another minor feature of this book, probably not obvious to everyone, and that is the characters are middle-aged professional women and teenaged boys — two of each category — , a combination that is rare except for Hetty Wainthropp, the British TV crime series.   A third thread is domestic abuse.

Probably I wouldn’t know this book, though there are quite a few Nevada Barr mysteries in our local library, except that my eyes, normally afflicted by “Dry Eye Syndrome”, are much worse now because of the smoke, so I thought it was a good occasion for exploring spoken books.  is an Amazon project and the website will explain how you can become a reader.  Anyone can be a listener if they have a machine.  I was listening to a CD, but our library has a whole wall of CD’s and cassettes.  People here drive long distances and some enjoy doing handwork or housework while listening.  Our librarian, if she is alone, often has her tablet murmuring along.

My first experience with listening came with an early iPod pre-loaded with Rachmaninoff and “The Outlander,” which by now is practically an industry.   
The entire book is available for listening.   it is much enhanced by the reader, Davina Porter, who has a delicious accent.  My cousin, Ham Smith, sent the set-up.  He’s a tech fan.  When I call him and Diane, the genetic cousin who is his wife and the source of my connection, if they are watching television, their screen announces that they have a call and that it is me.

I found the Outlander story shocking!  S/M, gay rape, and bigamy as key themes.  Graphic violence.  My cousins (we’re connected by Scots grandparents) are quite ladylike but they didn’t seem to mind.  They said to just skip those parts, to read the books for the history.  I decided they were exercising a willing suspension of disbelief.  Something like that is necessary for enjoying “Blood Lure.”  I did have to overcome the tendency to look for ways that I "knew better."

The title comes from the biology project of collecting the genetic information of grizzlies by depositing a very smelly bait in some remote place, which is encircled by barbed wire that will snag out bits of fur that can be analyzed for DNA.  The idea originally came from hair on fences and has turned out to be a vital part of understanding how many bears are out there and how they are related to each other.  But the story doesn’t use the hair traps to reveal the species of the Kodiak bear.  Rather, it is the excuse for the two women and their teenaged helper to be camping in a remote place, where they meet a mysterious second boy.

As some of the reader comments have pointed out, this tale is very strong in the beginning when a nightmare attack on the camp kicks off the plot, and then strong again at the end when the mystery finally unravels, but the middle is sort of slow.  It’s very “literary” writing with little flights of fancy and speculation about the humans rather than the animals.  Sometimes the embroidery overcomes the justification.  Once in a while there’s a failure of tone, so that the metaphors really don’t fit the context — fast writing that my writing professors would never tolerate.  But nothing “fatal.”

This kind of quick, tolerant, rather fancy writing is enjoyed by some, who aren’t looking for major literature to be pored over for symbolism, and is quite different from male mystery/thrillers that exploit horror and ghastliness, though the victim in this story has her face cut off.  It’s hard to top the hot journalism of “Night of the Grizzlies” which is back in the news because of the fifty year anniversary.

When an author writes a long series like this, it has to reflect something in the culture that makes the books, in whatever form, sell dependably.  An appetite.  It’s got to please publishers who like their products to be predictable for promotional purposes.  In the end, a series is revealing of the author in a way more typical of blogs.  

I make a bit of effort to be surprising, but when a person builds in their brain a “connectome” for writing, it compels recognizability, which is what gave away the Unabomber.  The author who wants to renew his or her work, will need to have new experiences, to explore entirely new worlds in order to build new rhetorical style, sentence structures and a new set of metaphors — all that machinery.  This is sometimes neglected by the MFA crowd.

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