Randy Wayne White
There are probably worse jobs than professional fishing guide. Sun, sea, fish, fun.
I suppose, though, if the fish aren’t biting the customers might get unhappy. And bad weather probably directly affects your income. But all in all it’s like the bumper sticker says: A bad day fishing beats a good day in the office.
Yet even fishing guides have dreams. So if you’re going to combine dream jobs why not add “crime writer” to “fishing guide?” Randy Wayne White has done just that. I’m pretty sure that puts him in a category of one.
White plies both his trades on Florida‘s southwest coast. More particularly the home turf he, or at least his main character, inhabits is Sanibel lsland,You can do worse than Sanibel as a vacation destination.
For me, the Sanibel vibe has always been different than the rest of the state. I think Elmore Leonard once said everything you need to know about Florida comes down to I-75 enabling escape from the Midwest. It is definitely an earlier-eating, back-slapping kind of place. And if shopping is your thing, well, you’ll exhaust the Island’s possibilities in a day. Not a bad thing from my perspective.
Sanibel is also the home of Marion ‘Doc’ Ford, the protagonist of what has turned out to be White’s contribution to crime fiction. The good doctor operates Saniblel Marine Supply, a business that supplies live specimens to academic labs and allows for lots of exposition about marine life. Nice way to work in the day job.
PhD marine biologists are not the natural heroes of crime novels. But Doc Ford is no ordinary PhD. He’s actually some sort of black operative. So in addition to rationality by the boatload and arcane biological information, he has a skill-set worthy of Jason Bourne. No matter what sort of trouble arises, Doc can rise to the occasion.
At first glance, a low-key, vacation destination heavy on one of the blood sports might seem an incongruous setting for a mystery series. In fact, if you can’t draw on the variety that occurs naturally in a large city (think Lawrence Block or Michael Connelly) then you need a place that people cycle through. Country houses, for example, serve that purpose for both Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse. Florida does the same for Leonard, Hiaasen and White. Such locations serve as suitable gathering places for visitors and trouble makers from the metropole.
In this instance, though, the visitors are actually from the developing world. More accurately, a couple of the important ones are. There are a couple of Florida rednecks–who are, I think, a legal requirement for any work set in Florida–to deliver the local color and round out the cast.
And there’s Doc’s regular right hand, Tomlinson, who does have a first name but I’ll be damned if I can remember it. If I were a Conan Doyle reader I might know if Watson had a first name or if he established the role of the single-named sidekick. Tomlinson, a first-rank, New Age stoner, serves as the foil to Doc’s hyper-rationality, as well as his best friend. He’s also the Macguffin in this particular tale. In other Doc Ford tales he’s more involved in the action.
And there’s quite a bit of action in the 72 hours, at most, covered in these three hundred pages. The tale begins with our heroes venturing to a trailer park full of illegal immigrants, The draw is a young girl from Guatemala, Tula, who is, in Tomlinson’s words “…in trouble.” They don’t actually encounter Tula because they need to save a man from an alligator attack. The whole visit, which probably takes a fifth of the book, introduces the major characters and what you can expect from them.
Tula is a mystically gifted woman-child with a Joan of Arc fixation. She is searching for her immediate family but also to bring her fellow Central Americans home from the alien environment of North America. Her aspect is such that her compatriots, adults all, recognize her gift and respond to it. She can, in fact, speak to people in a way that gets past their bullshit unless they are completely evil and have completely bought their own nonsense.
Of course there are a couple of those.
The tale is structured to lead to an almost set-piece battle. Crime stories are plot driven tales. There’s no point disclosing too much because it will rob you of the fun. There’s also not a lot that isn’t telegraphed along the way if you’re paying attention. For me these books are the equivalent of a summer franchise film–pure entertainment. I don’t have to think deep thoughts.
If I wanted to, I could have. Tula does an awful lot of quoting scripture and St. Joan. But this isn’t the place to indulge in that pursuit. I suppose it’s a side effect of writing that we scribblers can’t help aspiring to something greater. I’m more indulgent of this now since I’m not completely effective in policing myself. And there’s nothing that says pure entertainment can’t also illustrate a moral or philosophical lesson or two.
There is only false note in this rollicking yarn and strictly speaking it’s not even part of the story. In an Author’s Note meant to explicate a scene in the novel White says, ” I learned long ago…, an author loses credibility if he’s caught in a factual error. Because of this I do extensive research before beginning a new Doc Ford novel…”
Three pages later White offers a Joan of Arc quote as an epigram. It’s a lovely quote, uplifting as such things should be. So much so that I had trouble believing it was real. Having made my way with Twain through the good saint’s trial I’d not encountered it before and it seemed too polished, too calculated for even a precocious teen.
It took all of two minutes to ascertain the quote is a common misattribution, drawn from stage and screen.
It doesn’t impact the book. Credibility is another matter.
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