Black Coral

 by Andrew Mayne, to be published by Thomas and Mercer on 16 Feb, 2021

Look out for this ripping good crime thriller. The second book in The Underwater Investigation Unit Series, this one sees the investigator, McPherson, stumble onto the trail of a serial murderer – but the cases are cold.

Since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle invented the genre, investigators have been blessed with superpowers. Sherlock Holmes’ superpower was – despite the appalling adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch – his ability to observe and analyse. Investigators have also been flawed in interesting ways – Sherlock was hooked on cocaine.

McPherson, too, observes and analyses; her flaw is a certain recklessness. The result, for me, was a two-session read, but the interruption was mostly because I needed to sleep. If I’d started in daylight, I would have read Black Coral straight through.

Like any thriller, it’s pointless recounting the plot. The reader gets sucked in or she doesn’t. So here’s what I didn’t like and I did.

The trouble with superpowers is improbable escapes, and McPherson’s recklessness gets her into a situation from which no diver could ever escape. I only kept reading because I wanted to know what happened, but my suspension of disbelief had been severely dented. (What hurt even more was that the entire incident turned out to be a dead end.) There was also a piece of photographic analysis that I simply didn’t believe: a face is a blob in a photo of six thousand people, no matter how large-format the camera is.

I liked the descriptions of the Everglades, though I felt they needed more sound and smell; I liked the scenes underwater though I would have liked more claustrophobia in them (but, as a diver, McPherson wouldn’t be claustrophobic); I liked the procession of losers and creeps, but I would have liked them to be less unambiguously losing or creepy.

My unqualified likes outweighed these by miles. I liked the fact that McPherson’s boss had to fight political battles, I liked realism of a tiny police unit being side-lined by more powerful units, I loved the way the threads were woven so that, by the climax, it all made sense without exposition. I liked that McPherson came from a home that was somewhere between broken and merely dysfunctional, I liked that she thought through moral issues, I liked that she had a daughter and wasn’t a model mother herself.

I thought the references to the previous book in the series – which I haven’t read – were superbly pulled off: enough to whet the appetite, yet never enough to obtrude or slow the plot down. The cultural references to the ‘80s were spot-on, and there’s a scene with the homeless that is both funny and compassionate.

It’s not quite a Raymond Chandler, but damn, is it close. Well worth the read.