Book Review: The Butcher and the Wren by Alaina Urquhart
Wren Muller has worked hard to become a New Orleans medical examiner, putting in grueling hours and sacrificing most of her social life in order to help find closure and justice for the dead and their grieving families. When bodies start turning up in the bayou and surrounding areas, each bearing a cryptic hint as to the location where the next victim will be found, it quickly becomes clear a serial killer is at large. Worse, he seems to be challenging Wren’s skills by putting his victims through increasingly convoluted tortures as part of covering his tracks.
While Wren usually has a genial relationship with Police Detective John Leroux, she is a bit annoyed when he laughs off this observation. Frustrated, she tells him:
“I never said it was his sole intention. I just don’t like my abilities being tested by some gutless asshole who thinks he’s Hannibal Lecter or something.”
She pulls out a tool like a pair of hedge clippers and begins using it to snap each rib from the bottom up to the clavicle. The force and sound of snapping ribs make for perfect catharsis whenever she feels frustrated. The dense clavicle bone takes some extra elbow grease to crack, a job she relishes at this moment.
Things take a decided turn when one of her business cards is found neatly tucked away near the latest body attributed to the Bayou Butcher, as the serial killer has been termed by the press. The Butcher seems to have some strange interest in Wren, leading to an elegant mid-book twist which impressed even this jaded mystery reader. Will Wren and Leroux be able to successfully team up in order to keep her and the rest of their Louisiana parish safe, or will this cunning killer successfully complete his ritual of carnage?
Author Alaina Urquhart is an autopsy technician whose deep knowledge of the subject is on fascinating display in this dual-perspective debut novel, as we learn what makes both Wren and The Butcher tick. She’s also co-host of the popular Morbid: A True Crime Podcast, and uses all aspects of her familiarity with crime, corpses and the practices of forensic pathology to write convincingly about the showdown between a serial killer and an ME. Her setting is especially absorbing, from the haunting darkness of the bayou at night to the rising fears of the characters’ fellow parishioners, as discussed by Leroux and his partner Detective Will Broussard:
“People look for patterns that aren’t there because they are scared shitless. They can’t handle that they are just as likely to be scooped up by a totally normal-looking psychopath as the victims were, so they make this crap up instead.”
“I hate when you make sense.” Will shakes his head and leans back in his seat. “The problem is these people are redirecting the focus now. Instead of looking for the single, basement-dwelling asshole responsible for these weird crime scenes, they are encouraging people to start tackling anyone in a Metallica t-shirt.”
And indeed, The Butcher isn’t some D&D-playing, heavy-metal-listening social outcast skulking around in the shadows. He looks like an ordinary guy, and is even perhaps a little more charismatic than the average Joe. He has an ordinary job and skillfully hides his heart of darkness from most of the people he interacts with. In this, he’s like many of the other real-life serial killers that Wren and her colleagues discuss over the course of the novel, as they seek to stop him from killing again.
I personally wasn’t a huge fan of the ending, but hope it points to more novels in Ms Urquhart’s future. As a debut, it’s promising—again, I found that mid-book twist delightfully astonishing—and I’m hoping to read more from her as her writing career and experience grows.