For a Clue, Look Up
The Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2003
BY TOM NOLAN
Detective fiction shares many concerns with religion: the contest between good and evil, the struggle of right with wrong. Back in the 1920s and ’30s, the mystery genre included several noted practitioners also well-known for writing on spiritual matters: G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Father Ronald A. Knox. But in our secular age, when it’s even money if God will be capitalized (let alone mentioned) in a crime novel, mystery writers who admit to an interest in things of the spirit seem as rare, as Ross Macdonald once wrote, as the cardinal virtues in Hollywood.
Seeking Enlightenment . . . Hat by Hat‘, CAPTION, ‘Browsing Tip’, STICKY, CLOSECOLOR, ‘white’, HAUTO, VAUTO, SNAPX, ‘5’)” onMouseOut=”nd()”>Seeking Enlightenment . . . Hat by Hat” (Putnam), a charming and thought-provoking spiritual memoir by Nevada Barr, the award-winning author of the mystery series featuring National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon. This trim book–subtitled “A Skeptic’s Path to Religion”–may be even more of a surprise to readers familiar with the adventures of Ms. Barr’s heroine: Anna is an avowed atheist.
“But I don’t think there’s any such thing as a true atheist,” says Ms. Barr from her home in Mississippi. “It’s more that anything you’re told doesn’t make sense, so you just sort of bumble along assuming there’s no cohesive higher power . . . even if there’s one that occasionally will throw an earthquake your way.”
The 51-year-old author, born and raised in rural Nevada by non-churchgoing parents, says that she herself was an atheist until her early 40s, when a sort of emotional earthquake caused her to seek refuge one snowy winter’s eve in an Episcopal church in Durango, Colo.
“It was the winter I think of 1994,” recalls Ms. Barr, who published her first Anna Pigeon book in 1993. “I’d moved back to Durango to try to patch things up with my ex-husband, and things were not going well. I was out wandering around in the snow before Christmas, feeling sorry for myself, and saw this big window all lit up. I was just going to knock on the doors and have them be closed and pathetically trudge away–yeah, I was wallowing–and the doors were open. And there were some women having a little ceremony. I turned to immediately run–and they caught me.”
She kept returning each week for companionship and distraction, Ms. Barr says, despite her lack of a belief in God. “Then slowly I began to understand the value of coming together in community.”
Eventually she came to embrace the Christian-based beliefs that inform the 43 brief, often humorous, to-the-point pieces in “Seeking Enlightenment,” one of which states: “If . . . we accept the teachings of Jesus to be right and true, then it behooves us to . . . bear the weight of knowing [that] we are the hands of God that lift others from misery. . . . This is indeed a cross to bear. It moves us from prayer to action, forces us to cease putting the evils of the world on the altar for the divine to fix and to get up off our knees and fix it ourselves.”
Although she calls herself a Christian now, Ms. Barr acknowledges that she might not be so considered by other Christians, since she sees Jesus (like Buddha and others) as a prophet to be emulated rather than as the one true son of God. But she says her fellow Episcopalians in Mississippi are comfortable with her position. “They’re very open-minded about people thinking about and questioning things. I talked to my priest, and he said, ‘If you come to church and you pray, you’re a Christian. Period.’ “
Those in the secular camp may be less tolerant, supposes Ms. Barr, once scolded by a reader for wearing a cross in her author photo for a novel about the atheist Anna Pigeon. “I was very concerned my publisher do a good job of not making [‘Seeking Enlightenment’] look like anything but what it is,” she says, ” ’cause I didn’t want anybody to get tricked.”
And the author–married now for eight years to her second husband, a retired park ranger–says she has no intention of forcing her series heroine toward some concept of monotheism akin to her own. “She just doesn’t seem to be leaning that way. . . . And if you break your own character rules, it’s bad art.”
But that doesn’t mean that Nevada Barr is letting Anna Pigeon off the hook: “I have been bringing religious people across her path, just to see what happens. . . . I think I will enjoy tormenting her with Christians.”
Mr. Nolan is the author of “Ross Macdonald: A Biography” (1999).