Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Naturalist: An Enlightened Thriller

Regular readers of this blog know that I review thrillers very rarely. That's mainly because I am very choosy, and always on the prowl for something uniquely dark rather than something overly formulaic. I may watch Law and Order religiously, but I like a lot more variety in my reading.

The Naturalist delivered. The story focuses on Dr. Theo Cray, a scientist who studies ecological systems and biological patterns. When a previous student of his is supposedly killed by a bear attack, his mind, wired for hard science rather than human relationships, sees patterns that others don't, and thus begins an investigation that takes one disturbing, pulse-pounding turn after another.

I won't go into the details of Cray's investigation, because that would spoil the fun, but I can talk about the myriad things that made this book stand out among its peers.

The first is Dr. Cray himself. At no point in the book was he anything other than a scientist. His analytical mind and broad knowledge allowed him to make logical connections that no other character could, and in that way the "uniqueness" of Theo Cray, and the common trope of "only I can solve this problem," felt very authentic and organic. It also lent a unique quality to the writing style itself. There was a wit in it, as well as lots of actual technical detail that gave insight into the way Theo Cray thinks - specifically, the kinds of scientific hops that his mind makes that, while seeming random at first glance, pull the story together in a way that is more cohesive than most police procedurals or legal thrillers, which also emphasize the "investigation" as the cornerstone of the plot. Cray doesn't have the resources that we're accustomed to amateur sleuths having, and so the turns in the plot are so refreshingly original as Cray moves from one data point to the next. It made for a fresh story, where it could have been very tropish.

Second, the conclusion that Cray comes to early on, that not only was his student killed by a man, but by a serial killer, is laid out expertly. The scale and methodology of the killer as developed in Theo's mind is chilling. And unfortunately, all too easy to imagine being right on the nose. He does this by pulling together very real data about the drug crisis of rural America, older theories about big cats and were-beasts, and the criminal careers of some of the most prominent serial killers.

As if that wasn't enough, Mayne toys with the idea of an urban legend, in this case, Cougar Man. Nice touch. Bringing in a touch of something weird and doing it right doesn't come around all that often. When it does, my mouth waters for more. This is definitely true for the second installment of this series, which hints and the use of another urban legend. I can't wait.

The book did have one fault. Cray's aloof/awkward posturing towards other humans works when he encounters obstacles with law enforcement and reluctant witnesses, but when he did try to make positive connections to people, those characters fell a little flat, and felt like hollow character types, rather than compelling people. This didn't necessary hold back my enjoyment of the book, but it is perhaps an area for potential growth.

K. Rating: 5/5
Image result for grizzly bear
Eeesh!! That's scary enough, without someone pretending to be a bear.

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