While on a research trip, scientist Dr. Theo Cray is pulled in unexpectedly by the police for questioning. However, midway through his harrowing experience–in which he definitely incriminates himself–the police come to the conclusion that their “murder” is actually a bear attack. An accident. Theo is free to go. But now Theo is haunted by the death of his former student, Juniper, whose life begins to unravel the idea of a freak bear attack before his eyes. The clues just don’t add up, and neither does the data that Theo generates demonstrating Juniper couldn’t have been killed by the bear they caught. Theo becomes obsessed with proving that a serial killer is out there, cleverly avoiding notice and framing an innocent bear for the deaths of Juniper and countless others.
What is The Naturalist about?
The Naturalist is about Dr. Theo Cray, who studies the computer generated data that reveals information about biology. His studies bring him to Montana one summer, where he is then confronted by local law enforcement as a suspect in a murder. Theo’s former student, Juniper, was also studying in the area when she was killed–apparently by a bear. But even released of his responsibility, Theo can’t stop thinking about Juniper’s untimely death and the suspicious circumstances of it.
This book’s set up sounds very science fiction, and in fact that was part of why I decided to read it. However, this book is firmly a thriller. It’s got science thrown about quite a bit, and a few little social commentary moments that were surprising, but otherwise fits well into the tropes of a thriller.
Tropes: Nobody listens to scientists but also ACAB
I don’t now why this trope in particular bothers me, maybe because it’s always done in a weird way, but: I don’t like thrillers that focus on a main character who becomes a huge suspect through their own idiocy, or just for plot purposes. For this book, at first Theo is a suspect but he’s quickly ruled out as a mourning man and is treated with kid gloves by law enforcement despite repeated questionable behavior. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too: Theo did too much incriminating shit early in the book on a misguided belief that his innocence would be proven, and then he did too many actually criminal things later that were overlooked. Plus nobody listened to him.
Plot: Serial killers are everywhere
In a bit of a bone chilling way, the moral of this book is essentially that there are probably killers everywhere we just haven’t caught on to them yet. Very Criminal Minds in its message, this book is definitely harrowing.
Though at first Theo was a little insufferable, he began to grow on me as the story went on. I especially enjoyed the way he stepped into the role of vigilante with surprising ease. I also found that some interesting social commentary was put into unexpected places. The author seems to be making at least somewhat of a point about how poverty stems the intelligence and creativity of anybody, and also a few comments on the nature of law enforcement in the US.
There were times that Theo was just…annoying. First of all, he espouses this belief that only medical doctors deserve the title which is fucked up when you consider he definitely went through several hard years to get his own PhD. Anyways. He was also both willfully ignorant to how women flirted with him, and overly invested in those women. He was an idiot when it came to interacting with law enforcement, and some of his other stupid mistakes were just bad. At least he wasn’t an asshole or a creep, so a lot of these things played into a sense of naivety about him.
I was ultimately rather disappointed by how…mundane the solution to this book was. Perhaps I misunderstood the summary when I read it, but I was very much under the impression that there was another layer beyond the “serial killer” aspect going on. Maybe not something supernatural, but definitely something more. And that was missing in the end. This turned out to be just another “hunting a serial killer” story, just told from the perspective of a computational biologist. I was just expecting a new element to be introduced towards the end that wasn’t assuaged by the “well this is how he avoided discovery for so long” explanations.
This book is fast paced, has an interesting hook, and is narrated by a reasonably interesting character. Though I was ultimately disappointed by the ending and its lack of extra layers, I was drawn in during the middle section once Theo begins his investigation in earnest. I enjoyed seeing the mounting tension with Theo’s abject fear, and the building evidence for his case. I think the premise was a little bit weak to begin with–I was never fully convinced by Theo’s desire to I guess avenge Juniper–but as the ball got moving I began to suspend my disbelief a little. Ultimately, this book wasn’t what I was expecting but if I’d gone into it with the right expectations I would’ve enjoyed it more than I did because it’s decently well written and well paced.