First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Micki Browning, Random House Publishing Group, and Alibi for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.
In her debut novel, Browning offers up an interesting take on the mystery novel, adding a deep sea flavour to keep the reader curious. Teuthologist Dr. Meredith ‘Mer’ Cavallo has turned to working as a divemaster in the Florida Keys after her latest research project went belly-up. While out with a group, a troubled diver surfaces, speaking of a ghost within the Spiegel Grove, a local shipwreck. This ghostly chatter brings The Spirited Divers to the Keys, known for their documentaries on deep sea paranormal activities. Headed by Ishmael Styx, the group is set to investigate the recent sightings as part of their latest film project, with Cavallo sent along as the safety diver. While on the dive, a number of unexplained events occur followed by a panic attack by one member of the team. As Cavallo seeks to assist with the ascent, she leaves Styx behind. Fully capable of reaching the surface alone, Cavallo is baffled when Styx does not appear, which shifts significant suspicion on the skeptical doctor. A local detective begins probing and Cavallo is left to defend herself against accusations that she had something to do with Styx’s disappearance, which is quickly turning into something much more sinister. With the rest of the Spirited Divers mourning the likely loss of their leader, Cavallo is forced to help them finish the documentary, only to discover that things may be more paranormal that meets the eye. After struggling with much self-doubt when someone from her past resurfaces, Cavallo must also wrestle with relaxing her strong scientific mind when presented with much she cannot explain. Her continued probing into the life of Ishmael Styx open up a chasm of mystery and deception, leaving some key evidence out in the open but with the authorities refusing to engage in any discussion. With the revelation of another body, Dr. Cavallo finds herself in the middle of a mystery that has her as a key suspect, keen on disproving the entire paranormal phenomena. Will Mer find herself able to unravel the truth or will the mystery haunt her? Browning offers readers an interesting look into her abilities and has potential to attract a wonderful fan base.
In a genre supersaturated with traditional sleuths, Browning offers readers a unique approach. Using Cavallo’s professional training and her personal passion, as well as an ideal setting, Browning is able to coax out a decent foundation for her murder mystery. Developing a collection of characters from many walks of life allows the story to spin in many directions, while keeping the central focus on Cavallo and her numerous struggles. The dialogue is peppered with jargon that accentuates the numerous areas in which the narrative dabbles, which can be both beneficial and troublesome. Skimming the surfaces on many topics, including diving, the paranormal, personal faith, and documentary filmmaking, leaves the reader feeling underwhelmed and likely not curious enough to explore topics independently. That being said, Browning’s understanding and description of all that is diving offers her a unique niche best utilised in another novel, should a series be in the making. Additionally, while the reader is to grasp the idea that Dr. Mer Cavallo is an amateur sleuth, her interactions with law enforcement are stilted and minimal, but her own investigating is also less than intense, namely because she is juggling so much else in the story. This leaves the reader pulled in a number of directions without a clear understanding of where they are being taken or how things will resolve themselves. A stellar technique for some authors, but problematic in its approach by Browning in this debut novel.
Kudos, Madam Browning for a decent opening novel. I hope you will consider writing a sequel, having left some options open for Mer in the storyline, but a stronger concentration on a few areas might help create a better final product.