This is Doc Ford country.
Marion "Doc" Ford, protagonist of a series of bestselling Florida-set thrillers, is a marine biologist, former secret agent, and sometime adventurer, investigator and avenger who lives at a fictional marina on the real Sanibel Island.
Ford's presence is felt here beyond the books. One of the island's most popular restaurants is Doc Ford's Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille. And in a beach parking lot on a recent afternoon sits a white-over-sky-blue pickup with a surfboard rack and a vanity plate that reads "Doc Ford."
Strapping down his paddleboard after an end-of-workday paddle is Ford's creator and fellow Sanibel celebrity, author Randy Wayne White.
White is about to embark on a three-week tour through six states to promote the 20th Doc Ford novel, Night Moves, which will be published this week. If the performance of White's recent novels is predictive, Night Moves will rank high on bestseller lists.
That book is printed and ready for readers, but White is working feverishly toward another deadline. "The next book is due in two days," he says, "but I'm fine. I'm halfway through."
He's kidding about "halfway," but he's intensely focused on the book. Ford has made him famous, but White has a crush on a new character.
For many fans, White's tough-guy persona is as much a part of the Ford books' appeal as their quietly steely hero, turbocharged plots and lush Florida settings.
White, 62, grew up in the Midwest. He skipped college to travel, reported for the Fort Myers News-Press for several years and then, in 1974, became a fishing guide, working for 13 years out of the Tarpon Bay Marina on Sanibel. During the 1980s he published several thrillers under the name Randy Stryker. When the marina closed in 1987, he had "two young sons and a lot of bills. It was the best motivator in the world" to turn his attention to writing full time.
He became a globe-trotting editor at large for Outside magazine, and in 1990 he published the first Doc Ford novel, Sanibel Flats, which was named one of the "Hundred Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century" by the American Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. Since then, he has garnered growing sales and accolades that include the John D. MacDonald Award for Literary Excellence and the Conch Republic Prize for Literature. In 2011, he was named a "literary legend" by the Florida Heritage Book Festival.
White's extensive knowledge of Florida, past and present, is one of the key elements of the novels, and Night Moves is no exception. One of its plot lines involves the fate of Flight 19, five Avenger torpedo bombers with 14 men onboard that left Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 5, 1945, on a training mission and vanished — fueling conspiracy theories ever since.
"I don't believe in the Bermuda Triangle," White says, "so they had to go somewhere."
White's father was in the 101st Airborne during World War II, but the son didn't hear many stories from him. "We were never close, but one day when I was a teenager I asked him about it. I said, 'Dad, I know we won, but what was World War II like?'
"He said, 'You know, son, in Germany they had this great black bread and this cheese you could spread on it. It was just like butter.' And that was it."
White says he wanted to write about the part Florida played in the war as a site for many military training facilities. He began researching Flight 19 and discovered, among other things, how extraordinarily dangerous flight training was in that era, costing the lives of about 15,000 members of the U.S. military.
White also discovered that his friend Mark Futch, a charter seaplane pilot based in Boca Grande, had been researching Flight 19, too. "He's been up in some of those planes" from World War II, which had instrumentation that seems primitive today. "He said it was like flying in a shoebox."
Futch (with a slight name change) and his seaplane became part of Night Moves, just another example of White weaving reality into his fiction. (In answer to an email query about a plot point in the new book, he writes, "When have I ever made anything up?") Ford's stoner-philosopher sidekick Tomlinson, for example, is based on White's close friend Bill "Spaceman" Lee, the legendary baseball pitcher.
One of the most chilling scenes in Night Moves, White says, is also real: a place he calls the Bone Field, a marl bank deep in the Ten Thousand Islands littered with many human bones.
"I won't go into where it is, but I heard about it from a friend, and he took me down there.
"There were bones everywhere, skulls. I found a femur that had been sawed in half." He shakes his head. "Some bad stuff happened there."
Ford's adventures often involve high-tech gadgets, and White likes to know them well to ensure credibility. After dark, beside the pool at his home, he offers several night vision instruments.
"Look into the shadows," he urges, and it's startling to see the details of the tangled tropical vegetation around the house spring into eerie green light.
Then he hoists a spotlight. "See anything?" No. "Look through the goggles."
The spotlight's infrared beam is starkly illuminating. He grins. "You can get up to some dirty tricks with this stuff."
White lives near Sanibel's northern end with his wife, singer-songwriter Wendy Webb. The two met in high school back in Iowa, although they weren't a couple then. "But I didn't stop thinking about her," White says, and several years ago turned to the Internet to find her.
His downstairs office is sparely furnished, with a sleek laptop, an old manual typewriter and a long aquarium that looks as if it might have been borrowed from Doc Ford's lab. "The great thing about these thick walls is you can't get a cell signal."
The living quarters upstairs are bright and open, with the feel of a comfortably elegant treehouse. Framed on the living room walls are John Steinbeck's driver's license; a Raúl Corrales photograph of Ernest Hemingway against sky and rigging, a gun raised in his hand; and a poster from Hunter Thompson's 1970 campaign for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colo.
"I was in Aspen then," White says. "I didn't know Hunter well, but he was a brilliant writer. I think he fell victim to his own caricature."
On a midweek February evening, Doc Ford's Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille is rocking. All the dining rooms and bars are overflowing, but the staff finds a corner booth for White and his party. He and his two partners have a second Doc Ford's in Fort Myers Beach and will open a third at South Seas Plantation on Captiva this year.
The casual restaurants, with lots of seafood on the menu and plenty of White's books and Doc Ford merchandise (including a line of hot sauces) in the gift shops, are "bulletproof," he says, doing well even in the off-season. (He'll kick off his book tour at the Sanibel restaurant with signings today and Monday.)
The featured hardback book right now, though, is not about Ford, although he makes a brief appearance. Gone, published in 2012, has a young woman as its main character. Hannah Smith — her name and family history borrowed from a real Florida pioneer family — is a Sanibel fishing guide, a tall drink of water with a lively curiosity, a wry wit and a stalled social life.
"I love Hannah," White says. "Just love her." She's also on Ford's mind throughout Night Moves, and she's the protagonist of the book White is two days from finishing.
Like his other characters, Smith has her roots in reality. "My mother and my seven aunts were from North Carolina. Most of them were funny, and all of them were sweet, except my mother, and even she had her sweet side," White says. "I just loved the music of those Southern voices when they were together."
Other sources for the character include his three young nieces and Esperanza Woodring, a legendary Sanibel fishing guide who died in 1992.
Although he has taken only a week off in the last year and a half, White says, he's having so much fun writing about Hannah that he plans to continue to write two books a year — one Ford, one Smith. The book he is finishing this week will be published in October.
At the restaurant, even though he's tucked into a back corner, fans approach in a steady stream to have their books signed. One, a white-haired woman from Rhode Island, proffers her copy of Gone for White's signature. She notes the spark in that book between Doc and Hannah, and at first White is coy. But when she asks, "So, are they going to be an item?" he grins and says, "Yes."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected]