Unusually for a ‘crime’ novel, Murder by Natural Causes has stuck in my head since I read it a few months ago. I say ‘crime’ because even though crimes are committed, it’s more a psychological portrait than a crime novel. A portrait of a young woman raised and trained since childhood to be an assassin. Cilla is specialised in ‘dry’ jobs — deaths that will appear as though from natural causes.
Cilla is a wonderfully intriguing character, skillfully brought to life. Intelligent and highly resourceful, she kills without emotion or compassion. And yet, as a reader you’re rooting for her. Not because she’s charming (like, say, Dexter/Michael C. Hall or Eve/Jodie Comer) but almost in spite of her lack of charm. You root for her because you empathise with her, raised to be a killer and herself deprived of any love or compassion. As a child, she had to hide any emotion or it would be used against her or her family.
Helen Erichsen is a skilled writer. As a debut, Murder by Natural Causes is an impressive and original novel. It’s quite possible that the portrayal of Cilla’s Russian school and handlers is rather clichéd…. But who knows? You will hardly be surprised to learn that my knowledge of the true internal workings of the Russian secret service is somewhat limited. It’s still a compelling backstory and very convincing in the telling.
The novel jumps between two timelines: Cilla’s childhood in Russia and the present day in London. Each story is gripping, so you don’t really find yourself liking one story more than the other; the balance is just right.
The novel is quite graphic in parts but not at all in the way that I have come to dislike so much: those formulaic psychopathic serial killer novels that compete to portray the most twisted and unlikely killers or scenarios (a tired formula that continues to be churned out by some bestselling authors…). No. Murder by Natural Causes is not ‘about’ the murders or the blood and guts, it’s not written to incite horror and revulsion. It’s basically a nature/nurture debate and ultimately just quite sad, really.
Over the past year, I’ve been reading a slew [pun intended!] of novels about female killers. Its obviously an attractive theme for publishers, no doubt fueled in part by the success of Killing Eve. And what can I say? — I’m a fan. I’m tired of reading about women as victims of male violence. If I’m going to use murder as light entertainment, at least it’s nice for the protagonist to be a woman. Especially if she’s good at her job.
Note on the narration: I listened to the audio version of Murder by Natural Causes, superbly interpreted by Natalie Pela. 5* for the narration.
Thanks to Netgalley, the author and the publisher for providing an ARC. All my reviews are 100% honest no matter how I acquire the book.
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