Doc Ford doesn't go far from home in Randy Wayne White's new novel, Deep Shadow. But that doesn't keep him out of trouble.
After all, Doc lives in Florida. How far do you have to go to find trouble here? A short drive from his Sanibel turf and Doc's up to his ears in treacherous sinkhole lakes, predatory exotic animals and psycho killers on the run.
Just another day in paradise.
In most of White's previous 16 novels about the government agent turned marine biologist and tropical knight errant, Ford has ranged more widely, from Central America to the Caribbean. His adventures have often had some relation to his past career in black ops, with various sinister types showing up looking for payback.
Not in Deep Shadow. Ford heads into the rural center of the state for a day of scuba diving with friends: his inscrutable hippie pal Tomlinson, troubled teenager Will Chaser and Arlis Futch, a cantankerous old commercial fisherman who owns the patch of scrubland where the lake they're diving in is located.
Sounds like a nice, simple guys' day out — except with Ford, things are rarely simple. Futch purchased the land because he reckons that its little teardrop-shaped lake, actually an old sinkhole filled by the Floridan Aquifer, lies under the route followed by a certain small plane that left Havana in 1958 loaded with loot pirated by Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator deposed by Fidel Castro. The craft never made it to its destination in Tampa.
It seems Futch was hired to hunt a nuisance alligator on a ranch, a little sideline of his, and found a couple of Cuban gold coins near the lake, along with a propeller from a small plane. He promptly bought the land and talked Ford into a partnership.
Sure enough, at the bottom of the lake lies a crumpled fuselage. But before Ford, Tomlinson and Chaser can get near it (Futch crabbily stays ashore), the day starts going sideways.
Will, a tough kid who has spent most of his life knocking around Indian reservations in Oklahoma and Wisconsin, is a novice diver. When Tomlinson finds a prehistoric mammoth tusk resting on an underwater ledge, Will puts his hand into a crater to steady himself against the "honeycombed rock, a delicate lattice of limestone" so he can look at the fossil. His grasp is enough to bring the whole wall of limestone crashing down.
Ford is able to escape, but Tomlinson and the boy are trapped, with no place to go but into the labyrinth of underwater caves the lake feeds into — with less than an hour's worth of air in their tanks and no idea of where, or if, they'll find a place to surface.
Ford finds a little trouble on shore as well. A few days before, a pair of ex-cons in Indiana with a vague notion of robbing a coin collector in Orlando ended up slaughtering the collector, his maid and her three children. The two men ditch a getaway car, then getaway bikes, then hike into the Central Florida scrub, where they find a hunter's shack with food near a little teardrop-shaped lake.
They're hardly master criminals: "King and Perry were a painful pair to watch. If some scientist had melded prison genetics with random bad luck, the two could have served as a template." But they're smart enough to spy on the group, wait until Futch is alone to jump him, and then threaten to kill him if Ford doesn't hand over the keys to his truck. Desperate to find Tomlinson and Will, Ford — who under other circumstances might simply disable or kill the pair — has to bargain for their help.
Oh, and one other thing. Before the dive, Ford swept the lake carefully for evidence of gators. But he didn't stop to ask himself what kind of creature might scare all the gators out of a lake. Any Floridian knows about the havoc wreaked by exotic animals dumped by irresponsible owners and breeders. Think those 12-foot Burmese pythons in the Everglades are frightening? White has a little surprise for you, my friend.
This seems to be the year for scary sinkholes in Florida crime novels as well as in the news. In his January novel Silencer, James W. Hall trapped his series character, Thorn, in a deep, dry one for much of the book. White's water-filled sinkhole is a different kind of challenge for Ford, as are those caves that Tomlinson and Will unwillingly explore. So much of Deep Shadow takes place underwater, with Ford anxiously calculating the minutes of oxygen left, that "a breathtaking read" takes on a whole new meaning.
The plot's tight compression in time and space — most of it takes place in less than a day, in a single setting — adds to the book's tension. Dive fans will enjoy the techie details Ford always has at the tip of his tongue (although those claustrophobic caves might not make any new converts to the sport).
And the alpha predator in Deep Shadow might have you catching your breath next time the shrubbery in your back yard starts to rustle. After all, you live in Florida.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.