Author: Andrew Mayne
Title: Black Coral
Series: Underwater Investigation Unit #2
Andrew Mayne has been getting a lot of good reviews – and a lot of publicity – in recent years. Specializing in well, specialist police procedurals/mystery thrillers, where the protagonists have each unique skillsets and viewpoints markedly different from your run-of-the-mill police detectives, Mayne made a name for himself. I guess his previous career as an illusionist gave him a lot of experience in creating intricate structures and patience in preparing the big show in incremental, consecutive steps, because that approach is clearly noticeable in his newest book, Black Coral. Black Coral is the second installment in the Underwater Investigation Unit series, but can be read as standalone.
I confess that I chose this book from NG on a whim, not having read anything by Mayne before. But the premise, promising a special diving unit solving crimes in Florida, sounded really cool – and my own experience with crime thriller series (from Nesbo’s Harry Hole to Rankin’s Inspector Rebus to Larsson’s Millenium, or even Peters’s Brother Cadfael) is that I’m usually happier NOT reading them in the chronological order. This way there’s more to discover: I can have more fun with the mystery puzzle pieces and the inner workings of protagonist and/or their team, as well as the psychological makeup of the characters, and I don’t get bored by the ever-growing historical background :D.
And indeed, reading Black Coral without reading the earlier installment, The Girl Beneath the Sea, didn’t disappoint. The premise was fresh, the little discoveries, such as the archaeological background of our main protagonist, were coming as a nice surprise, and the elements that to me usually bog down the narrative – such as personal problems of our protagonists, stemming from an event from a previous novel or something that happened several books back – these are all cut short and remain mildly entertaining. I’ve read my share of mystery thrillers and I’m fully aware of the plethora of tropes characterizing this genre and probably hailing back all the way to Sherlock Holmes, the quintessential detective: and so the main protagonist is almost always a loner, remaining in a slew of relationship being strained one way or another by the mystery/crime and the demanding lifestyle. They are traumatized by some previous events, exhibiting one recognizable quirk or another, and they possess a strong moral compass that allows them to make decisions even in the murkiest of situations – but that doesn’t mean that they don’t question said decisions for years afterwards, trying to decide whether their actions were justified. I could go on and on, but that would be one boring review – we all know the tropes, and their familiarity makes reading of typical genre books an either entertaining – if they’re done right – or sadly irritating – if they’re done badly – activity.
In Black Coral, the main protagonist is a young woman with a long and convoluted family history in (legal or not) treasure hunting, which through an archaeological degree and extensive diving experience she managed to turn into an entirely legal occupation in a police department. Sloan McPherson is a likeable lead, headstrong and intuitive and flawed, prone to mistakes that can be ascribed to her youthful arrogance – from constantly overextending herself and overestimating her abilities to being easily provoked and having an enormous chip on her shoulder. McPherson was for me not entirely believable as a character – there’s a very juvenile side to her that just doesn’t seem to gel well with the “responsible mother of a teenager and a seasoned detective” schtick and the level of irrationality in her decisions was just a too high. All in all, she was at times a bit much and I’m glad that her presence was mitigated by other characters – a very convincing father/mentor figure of McPherson’s boss, George Solar, and her new sidekick/Watson, an ex-Marine Calvin Hughes. The latter needs some work to become less stereotypical and more three-dimensional, but the beginnings are quite promising and Hughes’s presence adds another dimension to Sloan’s varied relationships.
That said, my favorite character in this book was Florida. Mayne depicts the U.S. favorite retiree state with a gleeful focus on all things criminal, and describes a lively environment of crooks, thieves, murders, corrupt politicians, ne’er-do-wells, child molesters and ex-convicts with an enviable panache. Yet the most memorable are definitely Everglades: the swamps are indeed a perfect setting for violence and secrets, and Mayne makes great use of them, introducing a spectacular minor villain in the form of a giant alligator, Big Bill. I also enjoyed reading about the ins and outs of diving – the technical details are judiciously sprinkled throughout the narrative and never become boring.
The rest is mostly your run-of-the-mill procedural. Serial killers and cold cases, red herrings, pissing contests between agencies, politicking, institutional backstabbing and maneuvering, you name it. But it’s fast and entertaining, with a straightforward main plot arc that keeps the tensions high even in the moments dedicated to one of the many side arcs – be they personal problems, institutional difficulties, thefts from luxury yachts or just loads of alligators with a taste for human meat.
I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t turn my nose up on some of the plot solutions and coincidences, which I’d generously call highly implausible. But that’s, again, part and parcel of the genre. Add to it the fact that this book was clearly written with a screen adaptation in mind, and, as in the case of Crouch’s Dark Matter, the logic of the image begins to trump the logic of… well, logic.
All in all, Black Coral is an enjoyable, fast-paced mystery thriller with a strong setting, a cast of likeable characters and an interesting procedural angle. I sure hope that Big Bill will return in future installments!
I have received a copy of this novel from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.