Doc Ford doesn't spend much time on marine biology in Dead Silence, Randy Wayne White's 16th novel about the scientist, freelance spy and tough guy's tough guy. His fans aren't likely to miss it.
After a fast prologue on Sanibel Island, in which Ford undertakes a little extreme neighborhood improvement, he jets off to New York City for research at the Explorers Club with his new pal Sir James Montbard (who went by a slightly different name before his retirement from Her Majesty's Secret Service). They're planning a little jaunt to Central America, and it's not the kind you can book on Travelocity.
On a snowy evening, Ford watches from the windows of the club's trophy room as his dinner date arrives: U.S. Sen. Barbara Hayes-Sorrento. Her profile is high; in the book's world, Fidel Castro has died, and a hidden trove of materials belonging to him has come into the hands of the U.S. government — under the jurisdiction of a subcommittee Hayes-Sorrento heads.
As the senator steps out of her limo, a taxi rear-ends it. Another taxi blocks it from the front. By the time she starts fighting back against the would-be kidnappers, Ford is tearing down the stairs and noting "the careful choreography that is the signature of a professional hit."
He really shouldn't be doing things like this at 50-something, but Ford gets dragged down the street under a taxi, then chases one of the kidnappers into Central Park, where both of them fall through the ice into a frigid pond. As it turns out, the senator is safe, but the other two kidnappers have grabbed the guest traveling with her — which seems accidental.
After all, who would want to kidnap a 14-year-old essay contest winner from Minnesota?
Will Chaser is not, however, your average essay contest winner. An American Indian abandoned as a child who lived in six homes on three reservations before he landed in his current foster home, he is a rising star on the rodeo circuit. As Ford notes, "Chaser was qualifying for senior competitions before he was thirteen. At a regular school, the equivalent would be a seventh grader playing varsity football starting at quarterback."
Will's athletic prowess and gift for handling animals aren't the half of his unusual abilities. When his foster grandmother (who's married to a former professional wrestler) hears the boy has been taken by kidnappers, she says, "God help them."
Once those kidnappers, "professionals with unusual skills," threaten to bury the boy alive until they get their ransom, Ford sets out to rescue Will. It's his job, of course, but as his weird old hippie friend Tomlinson points out, it's also because he sees himself in the boy: "You two share the same simple rules of life: The weak survive only if the strong prevail. And all the damn quitters should be eaten like life's breadsticks along the highway."
Tomlinson has a lot more to do in Dead Silence than provide trenchant stoner commentary. He acts as Ford's cultural interpreter on Long Island, where Tomlinson grew up in a wealthy family and where Will might have been taken. And, as the plot unfolds, Ford will question the motives and the honesty of everyone involved — even his old friend.
White is in splendid form with this novel. The swift plot doesn't go off plane for a moment, and he skillfully alternates first-person chapters in Ford's voice with third-person sections from the points of view of Will and the kidnappers.
The story serves up inside dish on everything from the Bay of Pigs fiasco to Skull and Bones, the elite Yale secret society, all spiced with a grind of household-tool torture and a dash of magical realism.
The story powers its way back to Florida, of course, Ford's and White's usual habitat, where "sunsets at Dinkin's Bay are pleasant" and even an alligator can come in handy.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.