What if you could model the behavior of a killer using the same model used to track Apex predators? In The Naturalist, Andrew Mayne uses this idea to craft a tense thriller.
Professor Theo Cray finds himself under suspicion of murder when one of his former students ends up dead. After he gets cleared, it is found that his student was killed in a bear attack. But the data doesn't seem to match, which leads Cray to start modeling a killer.
Many of the reviews of The Naturalist criticize the science, which seems to try and toe the line of believability. On the other hand, it seems to do a better job than most thrillers of at least trying to make a coherent scientific narrative. It wouldn't stand up to scholarship, but it is internally consistent. This is about as much as you can ask for the genre.
The plot moves really fast. It shouldn't be a surprise that a guy that puts out three or four books a year has plots that run at full speed. Mayne doesn't leave room for the plot to breathe, which hurts some of the characters in Cray's orbit. Even the villain feels a bit flat in the end. Some of that is that we spend the entire novel inside Cray's head, which makes his character the most well defined. His evolution and motivations grow and change.
Mayne has some other flourishes. The novel takes place in Montana, and Mayne spells out the way that a changing economy has destroyed the small rural towns. Meth rings and cops who'd rather look the other way are set among towns where the only thriving business is a truck wash. The detail is more than scenery, as it sets the tone of suspicion everyone gives an out of town academic like Cray.
The Naturalist is paced more like a screenplay than a novel. The chapters are exceedingly short, giving the plot a rapid-fire feel. The pacing might put some people off, but it was an enjoyable light read.
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