Two phrases that Randy Wayne White's fans probably never expected to see in the same sentence: Doc Ford and bridesmaids.
"It is something different for him," White says.
For 14 novels, beginning with Sanibel Flats in 1990, Ford has been a mild-mannered marine biologist plying his trade from his stilt house on Sanibel. (White lives one key over, on Pine Island.)
But Ford has an alter ego: a tough, smart, often ruthless black-ops specialist who works sometimes for secretive government agencies and sometimes for unusual clients (in the last novel, Hunter's Moon, it was a former U.S. president). Ford has taken on guerilla fighters, political dictators and a whole array of psycho killers with cool aplomb.
But in the 15th Ford novel, Black Widow, published this week, Ford is working for a gaggle of bridesmaids.
It's tougher than it sounds. The bride-to-be, Shay Money, is Ford's goddaughter, and she comes to him because she and her friends are being blackmailed after a prewedding trip to the Caribbean island of Saint Arc devolved from a girls' night out to a drug-induced orgy — which was caught on video.
The book was born of White's many visits to the Caribbean. "I've traveled there enough to know that tourists can become well-meaning marks at the hands of some very unscrupulous people," he said in a phone interview Tuesday, just after kicking off a monthlong book signing tour. (He's in St. Petersburg and Tampa today; see box on Page 4E for details.)
In Black Widow, blackmail is only the beginning. When Ford goes to Saint Arc to investigate, he steps into a nest of violence and deceit at an exclusive resort called the Hooded Orchid.
"I had heard lots of stories about so-called spa therapy," White says, "which can be a euphemism for quackery and even sexual assault."
The Hooded Orchid doesn't sound like a place you'd want to make a reservation for, what with the bodies going off cliffs and the guard dogs — Brazilian mastiffs that stand 7 feet tall on their hind legs — and the very unusual proprietor.
Fortunately, it's not where White spent his honeymoon. Last year, he married singer-songwriter Wendy Webb, a smart blond he refers to as "my much adored wife." (White has two grown sons from an earlier marriage.)
A conversation with Webb, he says, made him realize that one of his longtime interests that appears in the book had a much wider appeal than he thought.
"She asked me where I would go if I could go anywhere in the world, and I said Sinclair Castle.
"She said, 'Oh yeah, the place in The Da Vinci Code.'
"I said, 'What?' "
Sinclair Castle is also known as Rosslyn Castle and houses Rosslyn Chapel, the key location in Dan Brown's megabestseller.
"As God is my witness, I've never read the book," White says, "just out of absolute envy."
But he is a Mason. "I've long been a student of this stuff," he says, and he employs it when he sets the Hooded Orchid in a former monastery whose mysterious architecture draws on Masonic lore.
Ford's eccentric pal Tomlinson isn't along for the trip in Black Widow, so he gets some help from Sir James Montbard, a multitalented British retiree — from Her Majesty's Secret Service.
"I just liked the idea of Ford meeting James Bond at the age of 70," White says.
Like Bond creator Ian Fleming, White has written many books about a single series character. But he says he doesn't get tired of Ford.
"Not long ago I made a list of Doc Ford books I would like to do, and I came up with 11 pretty easily," he says. "I like to let the characters go their own ways and see what happens. I find them fascinating."
He's already at work on the 16th Ford novel. What exotic locale will Doc visit this time?
"New York," White says. "It starts with him and Sir James at the Explorers Club."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.