Christine Andreae: Smoke Eaters
Barr: Firestorm Avon Books, (Paperback), ISBN 0380725827
Let's start with my new favorite mystery. Four years after its first publication in 1996, Nevada Barr's Firestorm remains in print for good reason. Everything in this exciting, suspenseful mystery works: the plotting, the characterizations, the setting, the atmosphere, even the smallest details. I can't recommend the book highly enough.
Barr's heroine, park ranger Anna Pigeon, finds herself trapped on a snow-covered mountain in the aftermath of a wildfire. One of her nine fellow survivors killed a man as the fire passed over them. Anna must determine the murderer's identity or risk another assault on her exhausted, demoralized and starving colleagues. With pluck, steadiness, and compassion, she unravels the mystery in time for a positive -- but uncontrived -- resolution.
Juggling so many characters requires great skill, and Barr comes through with a diverse cast of complex, multi-dimensional individuals. To give just one example, Paula, the truck driver who turns tricks on the side, could have devolved into the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold cliche. But Barr lets Paula assert her cynical hostility alongside her capacity to care for others. In addition, Barr skillfully describes the landscape, California's Lassen National Park, so vividly that its picture remains in your mind long after finishing the book.
On the other hand, Christine Andreae's Smoke Eaters starts off well, but just when you think you can call it a good book, problems erupt -- and erupt and erupt. You can't help but wonder if the publisher yanked the book from Andreae before she finished polishing it.
Smoke Eaters takes place in the same wildland firefighting setting as Firestorm, but strikes out on a different path. Mattie McCullough becomes incident commander -- equivalent to a five-star general -- for a large fire in Montana. Her team includes 18-year-old son Jim and a man with a dangerously warped mind. Excerpts from this person's journals -- an unnamed character I labeled "the crazy" -- punctuate the story, creating a sense of horror and dread as the narrative proceeds.
To complicate matters further, Mattie unexpectedly falls in love while confronting a cadre of resentful male underlings. Yet when a fire overtakes Jim and his fellow firefighters, she finds herself focused on a life and death struggle that ultimately incorporates the crazy in a terrifying climax.
Andreae does several things very well. She presents a good feel for life in a fire camp, a clever encounter with an off-beat militia group, and one of the most masterful portrayals of a villain I've ever read. Some of her characterizations, such as that of Mattie's son Jim, display a talent for uncovering the nuances of personality. But eventually, Andreae's research starts showing, to the detriment of the story. In some places, it just sits there, as though Andreae made no attempt to integrate it at all. I went from loving the book to finding it too full of clutter -- an exhausting amount of description that goes nowhere in furthering the plot or revealing character.
Andreae also stumbles in her pacing, a key factor in a thriller. She interrupts action scenes with dialogue designed to deliver marginally relevant factoids. Given this often occurs in real life, but in a thriller, you want unbroken continuity in the tension. You don't want people exiting the action to note that the Montana copper industry became important in the late 1800s.
Smoke Eaters sets up situations that never pay off and story lines that start strongly, then just vanish. At the same time, Andreae should have focused more on her characters and less on littering the book with every fire-related fact she came across. Mattie, for example, seemed alternately strident and whiny, which could have been rectified with just a tad more attention to character detail.
Mattie never struck me as really being in charge, anyway. As the book went on, I found myself looking forward to the crazy's passages, creepy as they were. Since much of the best writing and storytelling centered around him, and since the hapless Mattie never achieved his mastery of the situation, it could be that he really deserved the designation of "main character."
The bottom line on these two books? Firestorm, in paperback, provides a wonderful read, but the hardcover Smoke Eaters fails to live up to its early promise. Unless your budget permits you to buy any book you wish, I advise going with the less expensive option of Firestorm. It affords a much bigger pay-off.
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