“Black Coral” by Andrew Mayne is the second book in a new detective series, “The Underwater Investigation Unit Series.” While that’s not exactly a snappy name for a series, it certainly describes what makes this new group of law enforcement officers — the small group that works in law enforcement to solve crimes in and around Florida waterways — different from other law enforcers whose work limits them to more terrestrial endeavors. Sloan McPherson is the main character, and while she’s a bit of an outlaw, she’s an extremely likable one. While this is the second book in the series, not having read the first book didn’t leave me feeling left out. Mayne carefully catches us up on the backstory, and while the events of the first book are referenced occasionally, it doesn’t feel as if there are important details missing in this one.
We quickly learn that Sloan works for the Underwater Investigation Unit (UIU). There is some humor when she can’t remember if it’s the “investigative” unit or the “investigation” unit, and in spite of the serial killer case they are investigating, Sloan remains self-deprecating about her abilities both as an investigator and as a mother raising a daughter with her boyfriend, Run. She is disarmingly honest about getting pregnant at 19 and still feeling unsure about how to be a good mother to her preteen daughter. Luckily, her boyfriend is a good father, and he’s there all the times she’s working nonstop on her latest case. We see her work ethic, dedication —and poor decision making — in the first scene when she dives into a pond to retrieve a body from a car crash, fights off a monster alligator, and finds a submerged van that her gut instinct tells her is more than it appears.
After her unit gets the manpower to raise the van and finds the remains of four teenagers who disappeared decades ago, Sloan gets another gut feeling. She thinks there was more to their death than just some teenagers getting high and driving into a pond. As we learn, Sloan’s got really excellent gut instincts. And she follows them wherever they take her — which doesn’t always sit well with those who are in positions of authority. In this case, she uncovers a trail of murders that stems from one perpetrator, a serial killer who has been murdering for decades, and honing his — or her — skill over the years. (Hint: serial killers are usually male.) Along the way, she angers officials from other agencies as she almost single-handedly follows her leads to entrap a killer who has stayed hidden for decades.
Mayne does an excellent job capturing the unique landscape of the Everglades, a prairie of sawgrass, water, alligators, and mangroves. The setting is Broward County, which is north of Miami and Miami Dade County but still adjacent to the Everglades, also known as the “river of grass,” which runs up much of the center of Florida and covers most of the southern tip. I can guarantee that the Florida department of tourism won’t be using Mayne’s books for public relations as he describes in disturbing detail all the dangers that roam the wilds of the Everglades from the aforementioned alligators (who can outrun us) to the invasive Burmese pythons and the dangerous, albeit almost extinct, Florida panther. Serial killers, on the other hand, are not really much of a worry. It’s no wonder that the depictions of everything from the setting to the criminal investigations feel authentic. Mayne grew up in South Florida and his father was a Federal agent and avid fisherman. He spent a lot of time on the water with his father, where he heard about all kinds of cases.
Mayne creates a thrilling plot with very likable, yet flawed, characters. It will be interesting to see how the characters grow as the Underwater Investigation Unit gains respect from the other law enforcement agencies and the three members of the unit become a solid team. Fans of detective series will enjoy seeing where the next episodes take us.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.