Black Coral by Andrew Mayne

Read August 2022
Recommended for thriller fans
★   ★   ★   ★ 

Thrillers fill a particular ecological niche in my life. For me, they are literary fast food, perfect for when I need a tasty jolt to power me through a slump. But just like fast food, the majority follow a predictable formula, sometimes with adequate results and sometimes substandard ones. The challenge, then, is to find the one with the secret sauce author that fits the reader’s preference (and causes the least amount of damage while doing so?) Mayne has definitely made it onto my list of preferred thrillers.

Black Coral is a police procedural thriller told from the perspective of Sloan McPherson, an investigator with Florida’s Underwater Investigation Unit. She’s also finishing her PhD in archeology, specializing in underwater, naturally. Growing up in a family of somewhat bonkers treasure-hunters means she’s learned some of these skills from the time she could walk, so it’s an interesting perspective. I don’t always enjoy first person voices, but I did well with her normally calm and matter-of-fact tone, notable even when she’s diving into an alligator hole:

“I don’t feel like a brave knight as I swim into the burrow. I don’t know if it’s fear or anxiety. The two kind of blend for me. I usually define fear as the thing I feel when the unexpected happens. Anxiety is when I’m doing something that I already know is stupid.”

I generally liked her voice, which is both courageous and intuitive, but I did have a few moments where I paused. I never quite parsed out if it was character incongruity or if it was that same feeling I get when reading a female character by a man that doesn’t quite nail it. However, the pace was fast enough that I never got hung up for too long.

Which reminds me of the other angle that works so well for me: the underwater investigation. Not that I’d ever do that, mind you. And the body recovery would ruin lake swimming for me forever. Anyway, it’s not just diving, for those of you who are wondering if they’d be a little lost with talk about regulators and tanks and air mixes. There’s quite a bit about alligators in this one, along with the Everglades, and even yacht culture. Nothing requires suspension of disbelief, except perhaps Sloan’s risk-taking with alligators. Honestly, it’s a relief for the thriller genre.

Mayne weaves some nice backstory into his characters as it progresses. Family scenes help take a break from the emotional build in the investigation and with interagency politics, but sometimes the transition felt a little awkward.

The writing is straightforward. Not quite the eighth-grade feeling I got from late Spencer/Robert Parker books, but not up to Robert Crais either. It’s solid. There’s occasional wry commentary that made me smile, but thankfully, I don’t recall the outright quips that the genre is prone to:

“I need to find out what exactly he did in the Navy. I’d know if he was a SEAL, because he would have told me in the first two minutes.”

It turns out that this is book two in a series, but honestly, it stands alone just fine. I suppose I might have indirectly ‘spoiled’ one or two events in book one, if it contains some of the events Sloan references in this one, but I’m not too worried because I’m 100% positive I already forgot them. As a matter of fact, I had actually peeked at the ending of this one because it was getting late and I was far too involved. And I still went back and finished it. Clearly, a 4 star in the thriller world.

Many thanks to Ola who recommended it!

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.