I read a lot. I spend far too much of my disposable income on books. What I seldom do is read a book in a single day, which is exactly what I did with The Naturalist (Andrew Mayne, pub. 2017, Thomas & Mercer).
I’ve read that Isaac Asimov said “Science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not” (https://www.sfsite.com/columns/amy26.htm, Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Genre With Many Faces by A. Goldschlager, A. Eos, 1997), but I was unable to find the original attribution. Whether or not Asimov was the source, the statement changed my outlook on what science fiction is, or can be. Set in the small towns, forests and mountains of Montana, The Naturalist is a fascinating blend of science and fiction, educating as much it entertains. If you want some really interesting insights into how DNA, computing, biology, botany, and more could, theoretically, be used to solve crimes, I know you’ll enjoy The Naturalist!
Dr. Theo Cray calls himself a ‘computational biologist,’ a term I’ll let him explain. Cray appears to lack self-confidence when it comes to anything outside his academic research. He’s hopeless when it comes to small talk and misses social cues and clues; he doesn’t show his emotions, so people often think he’s unfeeling. When Cray becomes a person of interest in the death of a former student, his apparent lack of empathy is misinterpreted as a possible attempt to hide guilt. Fortunately for Cray, the authorities determine that the killer was actually an Ursus arctos, a brown or grizzly bear. But was it?
Cray has ‘connections’ who have ‘connections,’ and when a tube containing evidence fortuitously falls into his hands, the lab results from a very special lab tell a different story from the one law enforcement plans to announce at a press conference. Cray objects, officials push back, and Cray becomes persona non grata with a ‘Get out of Town NOW! card. He follows the letter of the order, but definitely not the spirit.
Cray hadn’t seen or heard from the victim in years, but he learned that, from her point of view, he was nonetheless very important in her life. This information has a crushingly profound effect on Cray, leading him to do what he does best – use computational tools and science to try to find the bear responsible for her death.
Theo Cray isn’t always totally forthcoming as he gathers information on bear DNA, first from a Montana project tracking bears and collecting their DNA, then from the GenBank (a real NIH database of DNA sequences from more than 300,000 species), and information on methods of murder from an anthropologist, and the Montana Medical Examiner (is there really only one in the state?). He journeys to several small Montana towns decimated by job loss, the outward migration of young people, and the scourge of crystal meth. He meets all kinds of people, befriends a few, and more than once has bruises and worse, to show for meeting up with some of the worst of Montana society.
The Naturalist is classified as science fiction, so I kept expecting an alien, or a large furry mutant, to crawl out of the Montana forests, mountains, or caves Cray ventured into, and onto the page. The killer was indeed an ‘apex predator,’ a term I now understand far better than I did before, but you’ll have to learn for yourself what form the killer took. If it looks like a bear, maybe it is, but then again, maybe it isn’t! With so many predators to choose from, speculating is part of the fun.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Naturalist and have added Peter Mayne to my list of ‘must read’ authors. I encourage you to read this one, especially if you love things scientific and enjoy a good mystery.