The Naturalist by Andrew Mayne is the first book in The Naturalist series.
Andrew Mayne is best known as a magician, but his series featuring FBI Agent Jessica Blackwood—who comes from a family of magicians and illusionists—is one of the most inventive I’ve ever read. In The Naturalist, we’re introduced to a new protagonist that’s no less unusual or compelling. Dr. Theo Cray is a scientist, one that hesitates to fit himself into one particular mold. When he’s detained by Homicide Detective Glenn while doing field research, he’s understandably concerned—and concern quickly turns to alarm when he’s shown a series of gruesome crime scene photographs.
There are two dozen photographs of bodies, bloody handprints, and random items. The photos are at least three different people; an elderly woman who looks like she was beaten to death, a man with cuts and stab wounds, and a bloodied young woman whose face isn’t visible in any of the images.
There are also photographs of bloodstained clothes, cell phones, money, and tree trunks, along with some other, pristine items.
I’m lost in my thoughts as I pore through the photos. Detective Glenn is a million miles away to me. So is the camera in the corner of the room that’s still watching. And presumably the Watcher.
I gather the photos into four piles and sort through them one by one. I see insect bites, poison ivy rashes, a hand resting on a closed pinecone. I don’t know where to go with any of this. The cow was easy—it was just one photo.
After a few minutes, I look to Glenn for some guidance and notice the polite smile is gone from his face.
He’s staring at the pile in the middle. His eyes flick to the camera for a brief second; then he looks at me, regaining his composure. “Dr. … Theo, why did you put those photos there?”
My stomach clenches. Something has happened. Something that makes me look bad.
I spread out the photos from that pile, hastily trying to explain myself. “These look like different angles of the same victim.”
He pulls out the photo of the bloody pinecone and another of a purse on a log. “There’s no person in these photos, yes you put them into that pile.” He drops the photos back onto the fanned pile. “Why?”
It turns out that, to Glenn’s surprise, Theo has noticed the weeds that were consistent from photo to photo. And it’s a good thing that Glenn believes him because, to Theo’s horror, he finds out that these photos are all from the scene of a murder—specifically the murder of one of Theo’s former students.
Luckily, Glenn doesn’t think he’s the killer. In fact, they’re sure it’s a bear attack, but they had to eliminate all possibilities. Glenn even calls Theo to the scene to see the bear (named Ripper, no less) after it’s brought down, but something seems wrong about the whole thing. On impulse, he swipes a vile of the victim’s blood. Maybe it was a bear, but deep down, Theo doesn’t really think so. He reaches out to his wealthy patron about the case, and he offers to have the blood tested. The results are stunning and send Theo on the trail of a cunning, brutal killer.
What follows is one of the most unusual murder investigations I’ve ever read. Theo must rely on science and his brilliance—which is considerable—to find a killer that may have been operating for over 30 years. But what kind of killer goes to such lengths to make his kills look like animal attacks?
Soon, Theo uses software of his own creation to attempt to find a pattern to the killings, and the results are stunning.
I plug all the variables into MAAT, comparing missing-persons reports with population data. I also find some statistics on the percentage of reports proven to be runaways who are safely returned. This filters things a bit.
MAAT draws a wispy, dark-purple loop around my map. It goes off the frame and then returns to curve around.
It’s a graph showing a connection between missing persons that lie outside what you’d expect from a given population size. It also follows certain interstate highways, but not others.
In biology you become accustomed to different ways data can represent itself. Salmon returning upstream and herd animals have very linear patterns. Birds follow loops.
I’m looking at another pattern.
One that’s very familiar to me.
It’s a predator’s circuit.
Theo is desperate to find the killer, and his search puts him through the wringer both physically and mentally. He’s also quite brave, which I suspect Theo would dispute. But he doggedly pursues his leads, hoping to convince the police that he’s not a kook or a killer, and what he finds is astonishing. There were plenty of times when his actions could have easily led to his arrest, and it’s a testament to Mayne’s writing that he made these scenarios believable. I loved the emphasis on science, which isn’t unusual for Mayne, and it really adds dimension to what could have been a run of the mill serial killer novel. The affable, quietly intelligent Dr. Theo is anything but run of the mill, and it’s impossible not to root for him.
Mayne is a natural storyteller, and once you start this one, you may find yourself staying up late to finish it. And while it employs everything that makes good thrillers really good, the human element is also front and center. Theo’s sympathy for the victims, not just his scientific curiosity, is what drives him, and there’s even a hint of romance thrown in for good measure. The creep factor is high, and the killer, once revealed, will make your skin crawl. The next book, Looking Glass, will be out in March, and I can’t wait.
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