Nevada Barr's fans know that Anna Pigeon, her Park Ranger protagonist, will endure all manner of wounds, scrapes, tumbles, abductions, bear claws and the occasional bullet before she figures out whodunit. Along the way, there will be some soul-searching, some red wine, a certain irreverence and an unexpected villain. So "Destroyer Angel" comes as some surprise. Here, the villains appear on page 3, and they are as nasty a lot as Barr has devised. From page 13 on, Anna's friends and their young daughters, together for an autumn canoe trip in Minnesota's Iron Range, are in bloodcurdling danger. The biggest surprise in this riveting novel, though, is Anna.
By luck, she's slipped off for a solo paddle when the bad guys appear in the campground. She has no choice but to remain hidden, tracking them solo as they bushwhack through the back country with their hostages, held for indiscernible reasons. Not quite solo: Wily, her friend's mutt, was left for dead and so becomes Anna's burden, source of warmth, sounding board and, well, spirit guide.
"Breathing deeply through shudders, she let herself drain into Wily, felt the bridge from dog to wolf." Together, they howl like wolves as Anna's humanity slowly is replaced by a primal survival instinct.
Barr, who once lived in Minnesota, creates an authentic sense of place that may give Boundary Waters paddlers the willies. The motivation for the kidnapping, once revealed, is reliably inventive and contemporary. Plus, longtime fans get to reacquaint themselves with Heath Jarrod, the paraplegic climber, and young Elizabeth Dwayne, whose story emerged in Barr's 2005 novel, "Hard Truth."
But this is a disturbing book. Anna Pigeon fans expect her to endure torn muscles and shredded feet, whether she's in the desert, on Isle Royale or Ellis Island. What they may not be prepared for is witnessing her breaking point.
Kim Ode is a Star Tribune features writer.