Auntie M had the pleasure of meeting author Micki Browning at Malice Domestic this year, where she was an Agatha nominee for Best First Novel for Adrift. That led to Auntie M asking Browning several questions about her two releases, Adrift, and Beached, the Mer Cavallo Mysteries. In addition, the retired law enforcement commander saw her debut net the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence and the Royal Palm Literary Award.

Let’s hear from Browning:

Auntie M: You retired as a division commander in law enforcement. What drove you to write crime fiction? Why chose NOT to do a police procedural?

Micki Browning: I’d be silly to squander twenty-two years of law enforcement experience! I speak the language. I’ve felt the buck of a handgun, the kick of a shotgun, and the steadiness of a rifle. I learned how to manage a four-wheel drift on a tight curve and not end up in a pile of twisted metal along the side of the road. I’ve also experienced the less exciting aspects of law enforcement: the tedium of paperwork, the heartbreak that goes with certain types of investigations, the long hours, missed birthdays.

After all that, I needed to decompress a bit, so while I knew all my stories would have a criminal element, they wouldn’t all be procedurals. My husband and I moved to the Florida Keys to take advantage of its gin-clear waters and dive. While living in Key Largo, I hit upon the inspiration for Adrift. It could only be told from the point of view of an amateur sleuth and Mer Cavallo was born. She’s had two adventures. She’ll return for a third in Chum, after I complete the procedural I’m currently writing.

AM: Ah, so there IS a procedural in the works! Louise Penny has said after the success of Still Life, she had a difficult time writing the second Gamache. You won the Dapnhe du Maurier and Royal Palm Literary Awards for your debut, ADRIFT. Did that early success and notice make writing BEACHED easier or harder for you?

MB: I had an easier time writing Beached, but I attribute that to already knowing many of the characters that would romp across the pages. I’d also learned more about the mechanics of writing and structuring a novel. I’ve since been named an Agatha Award finalist for Best First Novel. I have to confess, I’m glad I had Beached wrapped up before that was announced. The book I’m currently writing gave me fits until I realized I was trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Once I realized who really needed to tell the story, the elements started to fit together nicely. Is there pressure? Yes, but it’s self-imposed and only because I want every book I write to be better than the one that came before it.

AM: You have made your protagonist, Dr. Mer Cavallo, currently work at a Key Largo dive shop. Those scenes are the height of realism. How long have you been diving? What is it about SCUBA you enjoy most?

Before I became a cop, I briefly entertained becoming a marine biologist. I earned my open water scuba certification in 1986. I was living in California and did the majority of my diving off the Channel Islands. The kelp forests were captivating and the water was cold. Flash forward to the Keys where I discovered warm water and coral reefs. I became a professional divemaster and worked in the industry. Being able to explore the depths is both humbling and liberating. The barrier reef that runs along the coast took a beating from Hurricane Irma, but it is rebounding. I particularly enjoy diving the many shipwrecks that dot the Keys. There are stories found around every corner, on every deck. Plus, there are no cell phones.

AM: Who are your influences in crime fiction? Whose books do you enjoy reading now when you have down time?

MB: Gosh, how much time do you have? Recent favorites include Jane Harper, Anthony Horowitz, Lou Berney, and Lori Roy. I’ve recently discovered Alafair Burke. Some of my go-to crime fiction authors include Dennis Lehane, Lisa Gardner, and Daniel Woodrell. I’m looking forward to the next release from Bruce Robert Coffin. For beauty in all its simplicity, I turn to Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of Chinese poems from the early dynasties. I revisit Tolkien every five years or so, and I blame him for my love of all things medieval and/or mythical.

And Harry Potter. Because there is a bit of Harry, Hermione, and Ron in us all.

AM: Well said, Micki Browning! And now to discuss the books themselves.

Adrift introduces Dr. Meredith Cavallo, sea researcher whose specialty is octopuses, and don’t let anyone tell you it’s octopi. She’s been in the Arctic at the North Pole doing research but these last two months she’s warming up by working at a dive shop in Key Largo.

When the dive boat she’s out on rescues an unconscious diver, not from her boat, he comes to with the story of seeing a ghost on the Spiegel Grove, a wreck five miles from where he’s picked up. Impossible. But Rob Price insists it’s true, and soon ghost hunters and reproters clog the docks, with more who appear to film aboard the Spiegel.

This ghostly news has spread to YouTube and brought The Spirited Divers to the Keys. Documentarians known for their work on deep sea paranormal activities, the team is led by Ishmael Styx. Soon Cavallo is sent on their night dive as safety diver on their latest film project.

But a number of unexplained events occur as the dive commences, followed by a panic attack by a less experienced member of the team. As Cavallo seeks to assist with the ascent, she leaves Styx behind, believing him capable of reaching the surface alone.

When he doesn’t appear, he is presumed dead after days of searching, and Cavallo is the suspect in the sights of the detective on the case. It doesn’t help that Cavallo doesn’t believe in ghosts but in scientific process and searches for a rational explanation.

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.

Complicating things is someone from Cavallo’s past who resurfaces, and the biologist must wrestle with relaxing her strong scientific mind when presented with much she cannot explain.

The supporting cast of recurring characters is strong and finely drawn, different and distinct. The characters that people this particular mystery are also individuals. As Cavallo battles to disprove there are ghosts and clear her name, the stakes are raised when there’s a second murder.
A strong debut that will lead readers to quickly reaching for Beached.
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After the events of the first book, Mer Cavallo has decided to stay for a while in the Keys, and continues her work at the dive shop while she evaluates her complicated relationship with Selkie, the man who broke her heart 12 years ago and now is her next-door neighbor.

Against this backdrop, she’s out on a dive with Captain Leroy when they come across what she learns is called a “square grouper,” a bale of marijuana wrapped in black garbage plastic and bound with twine. Leroy explains they will call the Coast Guard when they are closer to the dock and turn it in.

Checking the bundle, the two find a coin from 1733, and a list of names on a brittle page in between the drugs. Also in the bundle is a GPS tracker, and before they can get their divers aboard and take off for safety, a speed boat appears and starts shooting at them.

As they speed for the dock, Mer pushes the bale off the boat and the speedboat veers off.

But this is the just the start of the troubles that will come to roost upon Cavallo, as she’s kept the coin to track its provenance.

Cavallo sounds finds herself drawn into the world of pirates, legends, and an 18th century shipwreck in her research, but brushing up agianst. modern pirates, also after the treasure aboard this centuries-old Spanish galleon.

There will be museum paintings, a wheelchair-bound philanthropist and soon it turns personal against Cavallo and her home. With a man’s life hanging in the balance, she will do everything she can to find the culprit and the treasure.

In each book, the author describes what is real and what is fictional, but the strength of her diving background lends a serious realistic feel to those scenes. If you’re not a diver, you will learn about the process as you read. Likewise, her police background allows the investigation by the professionals to follow established procedures, even when those are sometimes at odds with what Cavallo would wish.

A fine action-packed series with a likeable protagonist.

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