Randy Wayne White
The idea of a remote location with no electronic tethers, megaphones or anchors has never seemed more appealing. Times being what they are that’s not likely to happen, so I’ll have to settle for the next best thing.
That would be a chair at the town pool and a Doc Ford adventure. You remember Doc, we’ve met him before. He’s the onetime black op turned marine biologist who’s managed to change Sanibel Island from a retirement and vacation community to the setting for all sorts of trouble.
Lately, Doc has been getting around and this time it’s no different. We’re in The Bahamas now, clear across the Florida peninsula in a whole ‘nother country and culture. Still, it’s closer to home and works better for everyone–but most especially me–than the adventure on Long Island.
At the risk of repeating myself, these character-based series present a challenge to the author. And it’s a challenge not unlike the one that faces the writers of a successful sitcom: how do your characters and style evolve without changing so much that the original appeal is at risk?
Authors, arguably, have a bit more leeway than producers. What I’ve noticed is that when boredom sets in, the easiest way to shake things up is to play with form. Lee Child, I’ve read, doesn’t have a standard form. Some first-person writers will start bouncing between that perspective and a parallel, omniscient narrator tale.
And some just set about cooking up a literary calaloo.
That’s what Randy Wayne White has done with this story, the 25th installment in the Doc Ford series. I’ve only read a fraction of the corpus but I’d venture to say that this volume features less of the good doctor than any of the others I’ve read. Surprisingly, that’s not the problem it might be.
From the start Doc isn’t even in Sanibel. He’s off on a research trip in the Bahamas. That will come in handy because an old acquaintance, Carl Fitzpatrick, has a problem that just happens to have headed to that archipelago. Unfortunately, he needs to explain all this to Tomlinson, Doc’s stoner neighbor sidekick.
Fitzpatrick is a treasure hunter and he’s been robbed of something much more valuable than mere pirate booty. What’s been stolen is his logbook with all the coordinates of his finds–both the reported ones and the ones he’s sitting on. Plus, there are a couple of rare coins that suggest a big strike is hidden in those pages. Fitzpatrick wants it all back.
To make matters worse, it’s been stolen by a man who is the exact opposite of the mental image you may have of a treasure hunter. (For me, let’s be clear, that’s a modern-day pirate-type guy.) Our thief is Leonard Nickelby, a PhD anthropologist whose day job is as some sort of state bureaucrat charged with monitoring treasure hunters.
Nickelby, described as standing a towering five foot eight and balding, has been put up to this by a former student, Lydia Johnson. The attentions of a much younger woman have transformed this gray functionary into a dashing adventurer. He’s ditched the job, the wife, the mortgage and the Volvo and lit out for fortune if not fame.
Lydia, it turns out, is running her own game. Formerly employed by an imprisoned, and now dead, competitor of Fitzpatrick’s, she’s on to a major haul. Trouble is, the word has leaked and there are some bad guys on her trail. And while one of these is an unpredictable Hollywood jackass, there’s a sufficiently homicidal client behind him to worry even the most reckless swashbuckler.
Meanwhile, all Doc wants to do is check out his new contraption for repelling sharks; he’s a busman’s holiday sort of guy.
Well, that’s not going to last. The form requires that Tomlinson fly in so Doc’s hyper-rationality is complemented by the guru’s hyper-intuitive hippie-like humanism. We need some locals to spark romantic interest/complications. And we need some near aboriginal types so we can get the anthropology-lite version of the Táino people’s story.
We’re getting near the point where I refuse to say more because it will ruin the story. Really, and this goes back to the sitcom comment above, these books are plot driven. We don’t actually want our hero to be different. Familiarity is part and parcel of the entire package.
Everything, in a way, works out, as it must in these books. No cliffhanger. No set-up for the next tale. Well, maybe a bit. No startling revelations about our primary interests. We’ve learned a bit more about Tomlinson’s backstory, some of which seems inconsistent with earlier bits, but who’s checking?
In an odd way what’s missing from this tale is more Doc. He’s there on page one. He gets whole chapters. He has to do the black op stuff. And he has to be the guy with the toys: night-scopes, seaplanes, SIG Sauers and nice fly gear. Even more oddly, his diminished presence doesn’t really hurt the book.
I doubt these popular series are ever going to be enshrined as literature. Some might have said that about Cain and Hammett, but there’s a lot more going on with them. This is entertainment, pure and simple.
And who could argue with that?