Night Vision, Randy Wayne White's 18th novel about the enigmatic Marion "Doc" Ford, gets off to the usual slow start. You'll have to wait almost 10 pages for the alligator attack.
White — an outdoorsman, raconteur, journalist and former fishing guide as well as a bestselling novelist — has the writing of his popular Florida thrillers down to a finely tuned science, but he always brings something fresh to the mix. In Night Vision, Ford — Sanibel resident, mild-mannered marine biologist and part-time government assassin — crosses paths with a 13-year-old Guatemalan mystic who talks to Joan of Arc.
Even for Ford, who has encountered plenty of unusual characters, Tula Choimha is out of the ordinary. She has traveled alone — on top of rail cars, on foot across the desert, in the backs of trucks — all the way from her mountain village in the Mayan lands of Guatemala to the Red Citrus mobile home park in Fort Myers looking for her mother and other relatives. All of them came to the United States to work, but her mother hasn't called in three months, and Tula is worried.
The girl has been raised in a convent since her family's exodus, and the self-possessed child is fiercely devoted to her mystical Catholicism and especially to her patron saint — so much so that the other immigrants at Red Citrus view her as a holy presence herself, a seer and healer.
So does Ford's old friend Tomlinson, quite the freelance mystic himself, who brings Ford to meet her because he knows not everyone reveres Tula. Red Citrus is run by a couple of bodybuilders. Besides renting to undocumented immigrants who can't complain to the cops if they're ripped off, the pair make money cooking and selling illegal steroids, with a sideline in filming porn videos. For the last, they specialize in victimizing immigrant girls forced into sex work by coyotes and gangs — and Tomlinson fears Tula could be their next target.
Harris Squires is formidable enough, a guy who likes to shoot steroid cocktails directly into his neck muscles for the rush, and so huge Tula thinks of him as "the giant." But the really scary half of the duo is Squires' girlfriend, Frankie Manchon. The muscle-bound 40-something with "store-bought double-D chichis. . . . a body covered with tats, dyed scarlet hair, pierced tongue and her nasty attitude" intimidates even the Latin Kings gang members who frequent the park and deal drugs to and for the couple.
Not a great atmosphere for a pious adolescent, Ford has to agree, even before the alligator attack in the park's pond. He admires Tula for the same reasons he admires many of the undocumented immigrants he has encountered: "People who are sufficiently brave, shrewd and tough enough to survive a dangerous border crossing demonstrate qualities by virtue of their success that make them an asset to any country, not a liability."
But Ford, always the rationalist, is put off by the girl's visions. "Personally, I felt a chill. To me, the robotic passion of the devoutly religious is disturbing. . . . Maybe my assessment is unfair, but I associate religious fervor with pathology. Tomlinson, of course, does not."
But when Tula disappears after the bones of a woman are found inside that alligator, Tomlinson and Ford agree that she needs their help. While Tomlinson searches for her in Immokalee, which has one of the largest Mayan populations outside Central America, Ford heads off road to Squires' hunting camp.
Night Vision finds Ford in an unusually introspective mood, finding time between firefights to contemplate the nature of his off-the-books work as a hunter of men. White has always made interesting use of the tension between Ford's cool, scientific realism and Tomlinson's free-ranging interest in spirituality of every flavor, but Tula's character cranks that tension up a notch. Like her beloved Joan of Arc, Tula is a visionary — but a warrior as well.
No need to worry that those contemplative moments slow anything down. White delivers his patented slam-bang action and Southwest Florida atmosphere, and Ford is still the kind of guy who can handle half a dozen heavily armed gangbangers, figure out a workaround for doing a bootlegger's turn in a car with antilock brakes — and pick up a hot biologist at an alligator autopsy and romance her until she hollers for mercy.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.