Once again I find myself in the position of offering a widely diverging point of view from the general consensus about a book: while I started The Naturalist with good expectations – given the positive reviews I read about this novel and its companions in the series – and while this reading experience started in the most auspicious way, at some point the whole setup began to unravel and I was unable to stop noticing its glaring flaws. If I had not already been at the 80% mark when the “bubble” burst, this book would probably have ended in the DNF pile, but at that point I was in the same position of the proverbial car crash observer, unable to tear my eyes away from the disaster happening in front of me, and I had to see it through, no matter what.
The story, in short: Professor Theo Cray is a computational biologist, i.e. a scientist who studies genetic patterns through computer models predicting any given species’ evolution – or regression – according to set parameters. He’s the classical academic high on science and low on people skills, but he’s compelled to take some interest in the world surrounding him when he’s suspected of the murder of a former student. Quickly cleared of the accusation, Cray becomes obsessed with what he sees as a string of similar murders – all ultimately attributed to wild animals – and starts an investigation on his own, a journey that will take him face to face with a cunning killer who has acted unhindered for a long time.
At first there is some suspension of disbelief to be called into action when reading The Naturalist: the police seems blind to the evidence that there is more to it than simple animal attacks; Cray devises a computer program that can predict, with unerring accuracy, where the victims’ bodies are buried, and is able to unearth them, with almost no legal consequences for his evidence tampering; his actions look highly suspicious, and yet Cray can move almost unopposed as he pursues his obsession – that is, if one can overlook the frequent beatings he takes in the course of his investigations, and which he’s able to shrug off thanks to the tight focus on his self-imposed mission.
All of the above does sound quite over the top, but the pacing is such that it’s easy to overlook even the most glaring of discrepancies. But at some point they do keep adding up and the effort required to move along with the flow becomes more pronounced: if this had been a story based on a science fiction or fantasy medium it would have been easier to take some details for granted – if we can accept spaceships or dragons, the rest comes along as a matter of consequence. But this novel is set in our times, our reality, and it depicts a murder mystery where the main character uses hard science (even when it’s somewhat far-fetched) to arrange the pieces of the puzzle, so it’s difficult, if not impossible, to accept the total police incompetence, for example, that is a constant in Cray’s interactions with law enforcement, or the ease with which he can literally dump the unearthed bodies on their doorstep without being held for questioning.
The turning point, however, the instance that caused me to literally crash out of the narrative bubble, happened when the assassin, understanding that Cray is getting close to discover his identity, threatens to kill the people he cares about if the professor will not publicly confess to the murders and then take his own life. That scene should have cranked up the tension, raised the already high stakes, but instead it turned the story into a ludicrous farce, one that instead of keeping me on the edge of the seat only managed to make me laugh – and not in amusement. Because Cray, instead of going straight to the police, or to warn his endangered friends – or both – chooses to appear as if he’s acceding to the killer’s demands and stages his own death, to be able to go after the murderer himself.
Never mind that he already raised lot of suspicions by his weird digging efforts, he now compounds his previous foolish actions by stealing a corpse from the morgue to stage his suicide, and by taking ghastly measures to make the body look like a fresh one – and here is where I drew the final line against the abuse of reader’s intellect:
I pumped two pints of my blood into his body. I was already running low from my previous accident and not sure if I should have spared even that much. But to make the thing work, it’s absolutely critical that the medical examiner who shows up on the scene to pronounce the body dead doesn’t see immediate signs of lividity. To minimize those, I put heparin, a blood thinner, in my donor blood and used a syringe to inject the liquid into his body, then massaged the surrounding area.
Let’s examine the “facts” detailed in this paragraph: two pints of blood are close to a liter, one of the five the human body contains, and Cray had already bled profusely in previous circumstances, so another almost-liter should have laid him flat, not left him able to move around as if nothing had happened. The attempt to mask the signs of livor mortis is quite outlandish (not to say un-scientific), since we are told that the hapless body had been laying in the morgue for two days, and blood pools quickly when the circulation stops because, you know, there is a thing called gravity. And last but not least, there is no amount of anti-clotting agent you can put in blood and no amount of ‘massaging’ that can restore circulation in a DEAD BODY, and therefore make it appear ‘fresher’ than it is.
As if all of this were not enough, the once-reclusive professor turns into a killer-stalking Rambo who’s able to ignore the pain of injuries and the debilitating effects of more blood loss (besides what he pumped into the corpse, that is…) and proceeds to a final confrontation with his foe that is peppered with repeated instances of (I kid you not) “BANG! BANG!” and “BOOM!” as if it were a graphic novel instead of an allegedly dramatic book.
I’m aware that a less curmudgeonly reader than yours truly would be able to ignore these details, focus on the meat of the story – which did start very promisingly, I acknowledge that – and enjoy it, but as these “writerly sins” kept piling up, my initial rating for the book took a nosedive and never recovered.