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Former Park Ranger Goes Back to Work to Find Settings for Murder Mystery Novels - 2003-06-08

For most people, America's national parks offer a chance to hike, camp, or view a natural wonder. But for novelist Nevada Barr, they're a potential setting for murder mysteries. She's a former park ranger who now writes best selling crime novels, each set in a different U.S. national park. Her latest novel is called "Flashback," and it takes place at Dry Tortugas National Park, in the southeastern state of Florida.

Nevada Barr's Park Service mysteries have taken her to lakes, deserts, and mountains around the United States. But she'd never visited Dry Tortugas National Park, located some 110 kilometers off the coast of Key West, Florida in the Gulf of Mexico.

She thought the name sounded too unappealing. It was her readers who finally convinced her to visit the cluster of tiny islands. "Three different people whom I didn't know in three different cities said, 'You have to do this.' And so I went down there, and it was stunning and mysterious, and I fell in love with the place. Garden Key is about seven acres of sand. And a giant Civil War fort was built on this key. The fort was never finished, and it was never used in battle," she says. "But it was used as a prison during the Civil War, and the Lincoln conspirators were housed there after their trial."

The fort's natural setting, and its role in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, inspired Nevada Barr to write what she calls her first historical mystery. In "Flashback," her heroine, park ranger Anna Pigeon, is temporarily assigned to work on the Dry Tortugas island of Garden Key. A deadly boat explosion plunges her into the middle of a contemporary crime case, while a tale of century old intrigue unfolds at the same time.

Nevada Barr says Dry Tortugas not only provided the right atmosphere for a mystery, but plenty of imaginary suspects. "The reason the fort was built out here in the middle of nowhere is because there's a huge natural harbor out there that's completely submerged. It's made of coral. Not only do you have the pleasure boaters, you have the commercial shrimping vessels that will come to harbor there," she says. "It is right in the center of many smuggling rings because it's located between Cuba, South America and the United States. So in this isolated place there's a great confluence of interests."

Nevada Barr researches her novels with the help of the U.S. Park Service, but she also relies on first hand experience. Some of the most dramatic scenes in "Flashback" take place underwater, and she did several days of diving to create those scenes. To write other mysteries, she's crawled through caves, climbed mountains and helped fight forest fires.

Born in Nevada and raised in California, she began writing her mysteries while working as a ranger herself, at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. "I had been writing for years. I'd sold one book, then proceeded to write four that didn't sell. They were in my garage. I was down there working as a back country ranger, and I was quite lonely. And for some reason, I started writing in the same form I write letters, and Anna Pigeon just came leaking through the pen," she says. "It was what writers refer to as finding their voiceit just took me 5 books to find mine."

Question: "And how much do you have to work to make these very beautiful places also be sinister, is there much crime in the national parks?"

"No, I've killed more people in the national parks in the last 10 years than I think have ever died there of unnatural causes. The sinister part for me comes easily because I've never been an optimist. And of course the parks' natural qualities can be sinister," she responds. "That's where the damage and the hurt in the parks comes from. If people get hurt, it's because they got stupid, and nature didn't care and hurt them."

And while park rangers aren't generally tracking down clues to crimes, Nevada Barr says they face other huge challenges. She tries to write about those challenges, without preaching to readers. "They're protecting historical artifacts that cannot be recreated, and they're protecting natural resources that, when they're gone they're gone, and trying to bring back some of the endangered species we have. So I think if the story of the parks and the park rangers is told honestly, this stuff will just be there," she says.

Nevada Barr's novels are sold in some U.S. Park Service bookstores. Jill Burkland is Executive Director of the Isle Royale Natural History Association, which runs the bookstore at Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. Nevada Barr used the northern park as a setting for her novel, A Superior Death, and Jill Burkland says the store sells a lot of copies to customers.

She believes it's a good way to be entertained, learn about the park's natural features, and about the kind of people who maintain it. "She did work at Isle Royale, so she starts with basic information that's correct. The places she goes to and describes are real, and some of the characters are clearly based on real Park Service staff or they are a conglomeration of Park Service people. So we do sell them," she says. "They're a great little paperback to take along on their backpacking trip."

Nevada Barr says some readers pick a vacation spot based on her books, then explore the park with book in hand. "There's this group that calls themselves my 'fan club.' I think there's three of them. And they go to parks and hike, and they read my book aloud at the camp fire at night as they follow it along," she says.

Nevada Barr now lives in Clinton, Missisippi, where she writes full time. Her next mystery will be set at Yosemite National Park in California.

"Flashback" was published by G. P. Putnam's Sons