Andrew Mayne, Black Coral (2021)

Author: Andrew Mayne

Title: Black Coral

Format: e-book

Pages: 317

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.

Score: 7/10

28 thoughts on “Andrew Mayne, Black Coral (2021)

    1. I’ve been there back in the 90’s – the ever-present alligators in the ditches and gardens were quite imposing even back then to a kid-me 😁 Plus, Everglades do look absolutely fantastic, like something from a nightmare. But I did steer clear from Mar-a-Lago, maybe that’s why I still think Florida’s nice 🤣🤣🤣

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  1. I’m really happy this worked for you! And honestly, no biggie on skipping Girl Beneath the Sea because I thought this was actually better – more interesting, for sure! I loved the parts with Big Bill, and you certainly can’t have a book about Florida water and diving without the alligators! The parts in the Everglades were cool too, totally agree that the setting is a big part of what makes this series so awesome and unique. And lol, if you think this one was implausible, you should read some of other Mayne’s books – I thought he showed restraint in this one 😉

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    1. Hahaha good to know! 🤣
      You know, I think part of the appeal of this book for me is that Sloan reminds me a lot of early Mercy Thompson with her insistence on doing everything on her own and with her very clear, dogged belief in right and wrong and doing the right thing no matter the cost. I’ll be definitely reading the next installment when it’s out, but I think I’ll skip the previous one just as you advised 😁

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  2. There seems to be a consensus about this new series being a notch better than Mayne’s previous The Naturalist, whose first book turned out to be a huge disappointment for me, mainly because of that “high implausibility factor” you quoted in your review. While I’m aware that some suspension of disbelief is required in this genre, the demands the author made of me in that book were far from easy to deal with, but I think that I might give the author another chance because killer crocodiles sound like fun 😀 😀
    Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks for reading, Maddalena! 😊

      LOL, the main takeaway after reading this book is that you’ll probably never call an alligator a crocodile! 🤣 Abusive alligators doesn’t sound half as good as killer crocodiles, though, so we may have to figure something better out! 😁😁

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  3. Interesting hack to read these kind of series, something to keep in mind, even though it probably only works 100% for the first book you decide to read for a series.

    We visited Miami Beach for about a week a few years ago, with a day in the Everglades, and two days in the Keys. While the Keys were beautiful, what we saw of the Everglades was underwhelming, and Miami Beach was a really weird place. We generally left with a depressed impression on the state of the USA (infrastructure, poverty, etc). Very strange trip.

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    1. Yeah, but by then you know how much you like a given series and how much you’re willing to forgive 😉

      Interesting! What year were you there? I know a lot has changed in the US in the last decade, and I’ve been there in 2007 last, and in East Coast states to boot, so my recollections are definitely tinged with nostalgia, but I don’t remember being depressed by the state of things at any point…

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      1. In March 2016. It was just endless billboards for lawyers, crappy buildings, cheap stores, tourist trap bars, places to rent Lamborghini’s for a couple of hours to cruise on Ocean Boulevard, etc, etc.

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        1. Wow, such a difference in our experiences that were only a decade apart.

          As for crappy buildings, man, that’s the staple of most of the US (and NZ, and UK) for Europeans – we’re just used to much much higher standards 😂

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  4. Big Bill seems a good reason to read this book, but the MC doesn’t really seems like my cup of tea. I have not so much patience for irrational behaviors and choices most of the time, so it would require the right moment and the right mood. But all the rest seems quite interesting!!

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    1. You do like Kate Daniels, right? Sloan is somewhere between Mercy Thompson and Kate Daniels on the scale of being a pain for everyone else because they need to do everything by themselves – just without the magic 😂 I tend to have less and less tolerance for that kind of thing, but here it was only mildly irritating 😉

      And Big Bill is a highlight! 😁

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  5. Great review Ola. Peeved i did not request this, but im backed up with books as it is already. When i did my diving instructors coarse back in 2005 we went on a dive assissting the local police for a woman that went missing on the shores of Cape Town. We found the remainns of the woman that got stuck between two rocks and drowned. A three day old body emersed in water is not for the feint of hart…

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    1. Thanks, Dawie!
      Man, I didn’t know you had a diving license! Congrats!
      That must be pretty scary, all in all – and I can only imagine the task of getting out that decomposing body from between the rocks… Anyway, if you get the chance, do read this – I’d be very curious to learn the opinion of an actual diver on the veracity of Mayne’s ideas!

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      1. Will see if its still available when i get home later. I havent been back in the water since 2007 though… cant say i see me doing so any time soon. But it was a good and scary experience all in all.

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  6. I reached a point with modern mystery thriller, where I felt, I was reading the same book over and over again, so I’ve more or less given up. It’s fine to repeat the same tropes (loner detective, traumatic events in the past, conflicts with the senior officers, etc) but there has to be something which makes a novel stand out from the rest; otherwise, why bother. This one does sound a bit different. As far as I remember, I haven’t read much with Florida as a setting.

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    1. That’s why I liked The Son most of all Nesbo’s mystery thrillers 😁 It was different, and a standalone, and already polished because the author’s been churning out books in the Harry Hole series 🤣 This one’s entertaining and fast-paced, and I have wisely resigned myself not to expect a redefinition of the genre or anything mind-blowing, so I was able to enjoy it for what it it.
      But yes, the limits of the genre might be more noticeable in mystery thriller than in any other genre I read (I suspect romance is even worse, but I’m not touching this genre even with a 10ft-pole 😂)

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      1. It has been a while, since I’ve read Jo Nesboe and back then I hadn’t reached my saturation point for crime thrillers. As I remember his books, they do to some extent stand out. I agree about The Son being one of his best. Also, I really liked The Headhunters, but I admit it’s quite bonkers with lots of Scandinavian humour, which I am not sure translates very well. Haha, I am the same with romance (with the exception of Jane Austen novels).

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  7. You are quite courageous to dive into these books without following chronological order! 😛 Don’t you fear that you won’t have the pre-built character development for key characters as you go into a book set after “defining” events/mysteries?! I do find it so fascinating that you always go into a book knowing its foundation by heart (here, for example, knowing all about the typical detective, mystery format, etc.). At least the books that do succeed to impress you will have GREATLY impressed you by meeting all your expectations and going beyond them too! 😛 Awesome review as always, Ola! 😀

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    1. Hah, the problem I usually have with mystery/crime thriller series is that character development of protagonists is almost non-existent. They are fully formed the moment they approach the mystery, and after usually only react to the events. There’s always one or more defining moments in their past, but you’ll read about these more times that you’d care for over the course of the series 😜

      Heh, very true, Lashaan! I do love to be impressed – the I can lavish all the praise I can think of on the deserving book! 😁

      Thanks as always, Lashaan! 😄

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  8. Pingback: ARC Review: Mastermind or two amazing main characters, and a good thriller!

  9. buriedinprint

    Haha! When I first started to read mysteries, I had a bad experience reading C is for Corpse by Sue Grafton before A is for Alibi and B is for Burglar; it haunted me for years and is largely responsible for my mostly-chronological habits now. *melodramatic hand to heart* But I can totally think of the mystery series that I’d like to try this ping-pong-ball reading mandate with now. What fun.

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    1. Heh, my best non-chronological crime read was the Millennium trilogy: I read the third book thinking it was the second, and was so pleasantly surprised by the amount of mysteries and innuendos! Unfortunately, reading the proper second book later on was, as you can imagine, quite disappointing! 😂😂😂

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