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Review: Nevada Barr shows new talents with thriller '13½'

Putting her bestselling series about park ranger Anna Pigeon on hiatus, Nevada Barr dives in full force for her first stand-alone psychological thriller about the power of love, manipulation and taking charge of your life. While the Pigeon novels are adventure stories with evocative nature scenes, Barr skillfully shows her affinity for delving into her characters' souls in 13½.

It seemed unlikely that Polly Farmer and Marshall Marchand would ever have had much of a future, given their backgrounds. But Polly is now an English professor, Marshall a restoration architect, and miraculously these emotionally closed people found each other in post-Katrina New Orleans and married.

Polly grew up poor, fending off her alcoholic mother's string of husbands and boyfriends. At 15, she fled to New Orleans, living on the streets but never giving up and somehow graduating from college. Her two daughters from her first marriage are her world.

Marshall's real name is Dylan Raines — nicknamed the "Butcher Boy" because more than 25 years before in Minnesota, at age 11, he was convicted of murdering his parents and baby sister. Only his brother, Rich, who was away that night, was spared, and the two siblings remained close. After Dylan was released, the brothers changed their names and moved to New Orleans. Marshall never remembered killing his family and has always lived in fear that he would do it again. "Enough people tell a kid he did a thing, and he believes he did it," he says.

Barr keeps the psychological terror elevated in 13½ by realistically showing how people can be manipulated — by others and by the juvenile justice system. Polly wants to believe in the one man she has ever loved, despite a lifetime of wariness and a feeling that all is not right. Marshall, also in love for the first time, wonders if those demons still reside in him. "The foundations of Marshall's life were as sick as New Orleans after sitting so long in poison waters. Buildings were tilted. . . . Cracks appeared."

13½ shows a new side of Barr's storytelling talents.

131/2

By Nevada Barr

Vanguard, 320 pages, $25.95

Review: Nevada Barr shows new talents with thriller '13½' 11/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2009 11:55am]
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