In a Swamp

Mangrove Lightning
Randy Wayne White

When I took this book out of the local library the clerk at the circulation desk gave me a quizzical look. “It’s winter,” I said, “and I need a Florida fishing break.”

For years, ever since I stumbled upon a Doc Ford novel while preparing to spend a week on Sanibel Island, that’s the role these books have played. I’m told this is the 24th installment in the series and I can safely say we’ve come quite a ways since those earlier days.

My memory of that first encounter is dimming. There were certainly the two main characters, Marion ‘Doc’ Ford and his sidekick Tomlinson. That far back I don’t think Tomlinson had a given name though his character–an aging hippie mystic who lives on a sailboat and brings Pete Townshend‘s “What is it?/I’ll take it” line to life–was fully formed. His journey seems to be a search for libidinal satori if such a thing is even possible.

Doc is Tomlinson’s polar opposite, a tightly coiled taciturn man of science. A marine biologist, Doc runs his own business supplying marine samples to biological labs while he conducts experiments, an unaffiliated researcher who lives at the beach. He is precise, methodical and coldly rational. He is, also, not what he seems.

One of the things I like most about Sanibel is the wildlife, like this white ibis.
Photo by Peter Wallack at English Wikipedia

Yet If I think back to that first encounter I’d have characterized the tale as crime fiction, even as I did with this installment. And while I don’t remember the crime in that story, I do remember all the necessary elements–in broad strokes that includes bad guys, lone-rangery good guys and women neighbors in some peril–checked off all the boxes for the genre. But somewhere along the way crime became a secondary, maybe even tertiary, concern.

There’s a crime of sorts in this book. At least I think there’s a crime. Well, there’s definitely a murder. Two, actually. And there are bad guys. Mostly, though, there’s a psychotic grizzly bear of a man who is either a dangerous schizophrenic or the present-day embodiment of an ancient spirit so evil that it is almost incomprehensible. And just to make it more interesting, there’s also a second, unrelated plot that involves a wayward member of the Royal Family (yes, that Royal Family) and an international ring of child pornographers.

It makes me long for the simpler days of skullduggery on Sanibel.

One result of shells washing up on the beaches of Sanibel is the infamous Sanibel Stoop.

There was always a problem with the locus of these tales. Though it’s a vacation destination, Sanibel doesn’t attract a wide range of visitors the way, say, New York City does, nor can a place with a population of about 6400 offer up the range of nefarious personalities a metropolis of 8 million can. Something’s got to give.

What gave, evidently, is credulity. Doc was always a man with a past, as was Tomlinson, although the composition of the scrims each kept his past behind was different. As their respective backstories emerged the range of activities they could encounter expanded as well.

Nowadays Tomlinson isn’t just a one-man blend of Ram Dass and Tim Leary, he’s a PhD who is heir to a family fortune. Doc’s past remains somewhat shrouded and may not even be past. He’s emerged as a sort of under-the-radar James Bond. For a while, I thought his obvious black ops past was just a convenient explanatory tool. Now it raises as many questions as it answers even as his toy box has grown beyond a flats boat and scuba gear to include planes, laser-sighted weaponry and access to NSA-like, if not actual NSA, intelligence.

For the curious, a flats boat is a shallow draft, open-cockpit fishing boat in common use among Florida’s inshore fishing guides.

As a result, the books are more nomadic. I remember in the early books that Doc and a few others used their fishing boats like cars, flying up and down Pine Island Sound the way I used the Southern State Parkway.

That’s not the case now. This book finds Doc literally flying between The Bahamas and Florida’s Gulf Coast like he’s hopping over to the mall in Paramus. Both he and Tomlinson travel a circle between Sanibel and Islamorada that’s more than two hundred miles in diameter–the 4-hour driving time seems never to be a complicating factor.

Normally I worry about giving away too much of the plot in writing about whodunits. In this case, I don’t think I can explain the plot, even in broad strokes. There is the aforementioned international pedophilia element. There’s a family inheritance. There’s, perhaps, a revenant who’s rooted in a minor incident in 20th-century Florida history that our author bends over backward to assure us was his inspiration. There’s race-based exploitation and mass-murder and too much odd sexual practice.

If this hole business interesta you, this PBS documentary with Georgia Tech earth scientists is a good place to start.

What ties them all together is a hole. Well, not just any hole. A landlocked lake of some size and unknowable depth buried deep in the Everglades. Despite the lack of open water access, tarpon have been sighted there and Ford has been hired by the state to do a census of the marine life. Some believe a link between land and ocean–even the Atlantic ocean–is possible and explains the presence of the tarpon. It’s a stretch, but not much of one in a state where cave and sinkhole diving is a real leisure-time activity and unexplainable holes keep showing up.

If I’ve confused you it’s because I find myself confused. All I really wanted was the experience of a Florida fishing vacation with a little adrenalin added for fun. I’ll be fair, there was some fishing. I just didn’t find the rest terribly much fun.

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