Friday, January 3, 2014

The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Cassandra Hobbes had been living with her mother, who tricked people into believing she was psychic. Until one day, five years ago when her mother disappeared; her blood spattered dressing room in shambles and empty. Her mother's body has never been found. Her father, Vincent Battaglia, is a United States Air Force man stationed halfway around the world so Cassie was taken by Social Services to live with her father's sister, Cassie's Aunt Tasha and Uncle Rio.

Cassie has an unusual ability to figure out people, what they like, how they think, and who they might be. This ability makes life interesting and comes in handy working at her family's restaurant. Until one day, a good-looking guy comes in for breakfast and leaves his business card for Cassie. That card is from Tanner Briggs, Special Agent FBI, with an invitation to call.

After debating whether or not to call the number, Cassie does so, thinking the call might be about her mother's disappearance. However, Briggs tells her that this is not about her mother and they arrange to meet in Denver where Cassie lives. There she meets Michael, the boy who visited her family's diner and Agent Briggs who tells her that they have a special interest in her because she has a natural aptitude for profiling people. Briggs asks Cassie to become part of this FBI program and move to Washington, DC, telling her that she will be working on crimes involving serial killers. Cassie agrees, probably partly motivated by the unsolved disappearance of her mother. With the permission of her father, Cassie moves to Quantico, Virginia an settles into the Naturals base, a Victorian-styled house. There she meets Special Agent Lacey Locke, a tall redhead who is also a profiler and who will train Cassie.

Retired marine, Judd Hawkins oversees the home and its FBI proteges who include Lia (who specializes in deception), Sloane (gifted in the area of numerics), Michael (who reads emotions) and Dean Redding (a profiler like Cassie). After a day of rest, Cassie begins her training with Locke and Dean who tell her that the unknown perpetrator of a crime is referred to as an UNSUB. When Cassie has trouble profiling, Locke tells her to put herself in the place of the person she is profiling and to think in terms of first person, "I". But Cassie, thinking back on the likely murder of her mother finds this difficult to do and so Dean tells her to think in terms of "YOU". This does give the reader a subtle hint as to the identity of the second narrator.

The unique character of all five teens makes for an interesting but volatile combination, creating tension between them, especially between Cassie, Michael and Dean. Cassie learns from Dean that his father was a serial killer who tortured and murdered nineteen women in a shed on their family property. Michael who seems to be attracted to Cassie, does whatever he can to discourage Cassie's interest in Dean, who doesn't seem to like Cassie.

Both Agent Briggs and Locke are called away to work on a special case resulting in a break in training. Sloane manages to steal a USB from Locke's briefcase, override the encryption and she, Cassie and Michael review the files on the drive. They learn that the UNSUB has killed seven people, four in DC in the past two weeks. After reviewing the files, Cassie comes to the conclusion that the UNSUB in these murders is killing women who have red hair and who work as psychics - that is they resemble Cassie's mother. Although the connection seems coincidental, Cassie is convinced that the UNSUB is escalating and sending them a message. But can Cassie convince Briggs and Locke to allow her to work on the case? More importantly, can they determine the identity of the serial killer before he strikes again, especially since it appears that Cassie is his next victim?

The Naturals is very similar in concept to the TV series, Criminal Minds which focuses on the BAU (Behavioral Analysis Unit) of the FBI, an elite group of forensic profilers based who are called in on cases where the perpetrator is unknown and the crimes are of a serial nature and/or very violent. Many of the series episodes are based on real life crimes, although the real BAU does not become involved in the apprehension of suspects. Instead of elite profilers, The Naturals introduces us to a group of teens who are considered to have "natural" abilities to read people. These teens are somehow identified and then brought into this pilot program under the auspices of the FBI where they undergo training in mall courts and parking lots and are allowed, without much preparation to view files containing the details of the most violent crimes. Far-fetched?

Barnes doesn't do much better with her characters who are wooden and mostly cliched; Michael is the rich kid, whom the FBI allows keep his Porsche, Dean is the brooding, dark offspring of a serial killer, Lia is an annoying, cloy, eavesdropping girl with an interest in Michael, while Sloane is the  statistical phenom who snores like a longshoreman. There's plenty of tension among the five teens including a strange triangle that involves Michael, Dean and Cassie.

The storyline in The Naturals takes a twist in the last half, disappointingly predictable (there's never any doubt about who the serial killer is after next), as well as somewhat ridiculous (a serial killer who embeds into the FBI and not just any part of the FBI but the BAU unit!!).  The fact that a group of teenagers is able to solve a serial crime, outdoing seasoned, highly trained FBI agents stretches believability and even more so considering one of the agents is taking time out on the job to murder.

This could have been a great story - one especially appealing to those who love murder mysteries but The Naturals with it's great cover (the black gift box is part of the story and also a piece of evidence, hence the crime tape) just doesn't deliver. It's too contrived.

Jennifer Lynn Barnes is professor of psychology, having studied cognitive science, psychology and psychiatry. 

Book Details:
The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
New York: Hyperion   2013
308 pp.

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