"Deep South," the 8th entry in Nevada Barr's wonderful Anna Pigeon series, is definitely the best so far, especially as it comes after the somewhat lackluster "Liberty Falling."
In this installment, our intrepid park ranger has at long last allowed herself to be promoted. When the book opens, Anna is on her way to the Natchez Trace Parkway, which runs from Jackson to Natchez, Mississippi. There, she will assume the reins of district ranger in a land still fraught will male chauvinism and general distrust of females.
Nothing daunted (but secretly afraid of the very different flora and fauna--eg, gigantic spiders), Anna makes her way to her new job, along with her complaining cat Piedmont, and her dog Taco, a golden retriever in previous books who has suddenly morphed into a black lab (Barr's editor apparently doesn't know the difference). No matter. Once on the Trace, Anna is hit full force with two disgruntled male subordinates who refuse to accept her authority, a handsome sheriff who makes her hard heart flutter, a group of Civil War buffs who stage re-enactments in Anna's territory--and a murder.
Barely able to unload her Rambler (which has mysteriously morphed from her much-loved Honda--another editorial boo boo) of her worldly possessions, Anna finds herself immersed in the particularly nasty murder of Danielle Posey, a popular high school senior, whose beaten body is found in the wilderness tied to a tree and draped in a crudely makeshift Ku Klux Klan hood. Anna is thrown into the tangled web of the murdered girl's life and a mystery as thick as the fast-growing kudzu that blankets the region.
There are plenty of suspects from which to choose, from the high school's star quarterback, who was Danielle's prom date, to a mysterious and possibly mythical lover, to Danielle's own brother, an avowed racist who would love nothing better than to create an issue where none exists. The deeper the mystery, the more suspects. Anna struggles to make sense of the murder while also trying to settle in to her new cottage, her new life, her hostile office--and an alligator in her carport.
There is not a false step in this intriguing, fast-paced mystery. The thicker the plot, the more the reader is rooting for Anna to solve the case. I did not guess the murderer OR the motive until Anna did. It all made sense when the pieces were put together, but I had no clue beforehand, and that's the best kind of mystery.
As always, Barr's description of Anna's habitat is mesmerizing. In this case, since Barr herself was (and possibly still is) a ranger on the Natchez Trace, the descriptions are particularly evocative. I found myself smelling the hot, sultry, lazy Mississippi air along with Anna, and reaching for the air-conditioner for relief along with her. Anna Pigeon remains a thoroughly likeable and all-too-human heroine, and I look forward to reading the next in the series.