WHAT ROSE FORGOT by Nevada Barr (Minotaur, 304 pp., $28.99)
In this stand-alone novel, Nevada Barr departs from her long-beleaguered heroine, park ranger Anna Pigeon, and introduces us to Rose Dennis, a resident of an Alzheimer's unit in Longwood, a senior care facility. To a certain demographic, this setting holds just as much frightfulness as Barr's 19 previous murder-mysteries. We meet Rose in mid-escape into some nearby woods, and in the overnight hours without medication, her mind clears enough to know that something is wrong, that this sudden diagnosis is suspect.
Once found and returned to Longwood, she slyly spits out her next doses and sets about trying to learn how why she's here. Barr seems inspired by her new protagonist, writing with particular style and savvy. She describes Rose waking up this way: "Out of a coil of snaking dreams an answer rises, floating into a window as small and dark as that of a Magic 8-Ball."
Barr has always worked in brief asides that draw a smile, as when Rose "cries for the dogs they raised, the cats they served." The plot itself explores the idea of a profit motive in hastening old people to their deaths. "What with the baby boomers beginning to lose their collective marbles, dementia care is a seller's market." The action is classic Barr. Family connections are delved — yes, there is a sister. A hit man pursuing Rose through a bedroom window and onto a rooftop ends up losing the tip of his finger. Yes, she will take a print from that digit to discover his identity. In short, Rose is every bit as feisty and fearless as Anna Pigeon — and ends up just about as badly mauled as Barr's usual foil. The ultimate villain is unexpected, and the larger scheme a chilling vision of how aging people can lose control over their lives. Will we see more of Rose? Fine by me.