If Dan Brown wrote a CBS-style crime thriller, it'd probably look a lot like Andrew Mayne's The Naturalist. It's big dumb fun, quickly paced, and routinely threatened this reader's willing suspension of disbelief with a number of inanities, ridiculousness, and just flat-out stupid plot points. The Naturalist is a highly readable work of fluffy entertainment, one that is strangely compelling but also not very good.
Professor Theo Cray is a bioinformatics researcher, and when one of his former students is found dead in the woods, he's the prime suspect until forensics lead authorities to believe she was mauled to death by a bear. Thanks to a case of mistaken identity, Cray is inadvertently given blood samples of the victim, which allows him to engage in some lone-hero forensic shenanigans that lead to the discovery that the bear hairs belong a tagged animal that died more than a year previously. Unable to let the case go, Cray uses his specialized knowledge in bioinformatics and learns of a number of missing women. Soon enough, he's on the trail of a serial killer who has somehow stayed off the grid for thirty years and may have killed hundreds and hundreds of women.
If none of the above gives you pause, The Naturalist might be right up your alley. In order to discuss why The Naturalist didn't work for me, though, I need to point to some specifics, some truly bugfuck, batshit moments of high implausibility that really had me scratching my head. As such, I'm issuing a big SPOILER WARNING from here on out. Consider yourself warned.
Throughout The Naturalist, Mayne spares hardly a single thriller trope to get from point A to point B. We have the lone wolf hero who police refuse to even listen to, let alone believe, and who are perfectly content to ignore the discovery of all these butchered women. There's a hooker with a heart of gold, and the small ex-Army waitress hottie who, despite Cray's social ineptitude and naivete, still wants to bang our mousy, intrepid researcher. At some point in these types of thrillers it's a sure beg that our lone wolf hero will eventually be targeted by police as Prime Suspect #1. Well, Mayne begins the freaking book with that tired old trope, and then pulls it out of his butt a few more time throughout for good measure.
Cray's doctorate and research has allowed him to learn a whole lot about a very small subject, leaving him oblivious to pretty much everything else. As he confesses a number of times, he doesn't know a lot about people. He can't read social cues, doesn't pick up on innuendo, and can't even decipher a text message from a hooker that reads "1004BJ". This cluelessness is, perhaps, meant to give Cray an easy pass by readers so that once he starts digging up dead bodies all across Montana and texting photos of the corpses to police, even going so far at one point as to load a murder victim into his SUV and dump the body off at the local police station, we're supposed to just accept this level of idiocy as par for the course.
Unfortunately, I couldn't get over these hurdles, even as I watched with stony bemusement as Cray half-asses his way into stealing evidence, snatching a corpse from the morgue, and destroying crime scenes one right after another. And despite his reputation for these shenanigans eventually preceding him everywhere he goes, the police response is typically a bemusement equal to my own. After dumping a corpse off at the police station, Cray merely has to give a statement and is allowed on his merry way to go pilfer another body.
The amount of WTFery is nested like Russian dolls throughout the entirety of The Naturalist, right down to its over-to-top, laugh out loud, implausible finale. Look, Cray is decidedly not a tough guy. He's a bookish nerd who gets beat up multiple times by various people, and Mayne still would have us believe that this guy is able to single-handedly take on an apex predator of a serial killer, a killer who has gone all Terminator in the book's final moments. Somehow, despite being shot three times and having previously been beaten unconscious and having his jaw fractured, Mayne still expects us to believe it's plausible that Cray would think, in all-caps, "I'M GOING TO TEAR THIS GUY APART!" and go all Wolverine beserker rage on a massive, bloodthirsty murderer.
Did I mention I found this book utterly ridiculous? Because I did.
That said, The Naturalist is stupidly entertaining but also perversely fascinating, and the scientific backbone Mayne weaves throughout is really interesting stuff. The research and thought processes that Cray brings to the table helps bring a measure of seriousness to an otherwise inanely written story, and Cray's eye for detail in the natural world is well done, lending a surprising amount of credibility to his field work. Unfortunately, when Cray isn't in the field and Mayne isn't focused on wowing us with science, the story takes some pretty steep nosedives.
Readers expecting a serial killer thriller in the vein of Silence of the Lambs would do well to look elsewhere. If you don't mind a silly, check your brain at the door, beach read that's more comic book adventure than serious, well-studied suspense, you might do all right with this one if you keep expectations firmly in check. The Naturalist is ultimately pretty stupid, but at least it's entertainingly so. I didn't much care for it in the end, but I at least got my $3 worth of entertainment, and Mayne keeps the pacing cranked up to a high page-turning level. I found myself wanting to know how things were going to shake out, and morbidly curious as to just how much sillier it could get.
View all my reviews