it's not unusual for mystery novels to feature plots built on long-buried secrets. But in Bone Deep some of them have been buried for millions of years.
Bone Deep is Florida author Randy Wayne White's 21st novel about Marion "Doc" Ford, mild-mannered marine biologist and part-time lethal undercover agent. The swashbuckling Ford, a cast of engaging supporting characters and the Sunshine State settings — Sanibel Island and environs — have made for a bestselling combination, and there's now a TV series in development by CBS featuring Ford.
Bone Deep kicks off when "a stranger wearing braids and wrangler denim" arrives at Doc's stilthouse at a Sanibel marina. Duncan Fallsdown is a member of the Crow tribe (or maybe a Yavapai-Apache, or... ) and he is hunting for some small stone carvings and other ancient artifacts. It seems his aunt, Rachel, who is dying of cancer, "did some crazy stuff" years ago, including selling the artifacts. But now she wants them returned to the tribe before she dies.
So what brought Fallsdown to Doc's doorstep with that particular quest? Tomlinson, of course, Doc's neighbor, best friend, brother in arms and constant source of exasperation. Fallsdown isn't sure about the nature of the connection between Tomlinson and his aunt. ("Maybe that hippie snake did sleep with her — it would explain a lot.") But he is sure Doc is the man to help him.
Doc has hit a rough patch in his romance with fishing guide Hannah Smith, main character of another series of books by White. (The second one, Deceived, recently won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards; look for the third, Haunted, in August.) So Doc's in the mood for a quest, especially one that ties into his longtime interest in Florida's pre-Columbian residents. He's also intrigued by Fallsdown, who has a fine time making wry fun of Doc's suspicion that the Indian is running a con. When Fallsdown mentions showing an artifact to his aunt, who's in Montana, Doc assumes their visual contact is "medicine man fantasy":
" 'At least she heard your voice. When you described the owl, that must have made her happy.'
" 'Why would I describe it?' Duncan placed the artifact box on the table and looked at me. 'We used your Skype account.' "
Fallsdown's quest leads him, Doc and Tomlinson straight to the private island owned by Leland Albright, third-generation scion of a family that made its considerable fortune mining phosphate for fertilizer in Bone Valley in Central Florida.
What does phosphate mining have to do with Paleolithic artifacts? The enormous phosphate deposits in Bone Valley were formed from the sediment at the bottom of an inland sea that covered the area millions of years ago, sediment rich in the bones and shells of the creatures that lived there. When the mines' giant draglines scoop out vast quantities of earth to get at the phosphate, massive quantities of fossils are often exposed. In some places, there are also traces of somewhat more recent inhabitants — Paleolithic human beings, who may have lived here 14,000 years ago or more.
All that means rich hunting ground for paleontologists and archaeologists — and also for bone hunters who are interested not in science but in profit. Collectors will pay a lot for choice finds, and some of them don't give a fig whether those ribs and skulls and pottery and arrowheads were acquired legally or not. Fallsdown hopes some of those thieves and their customers will lead him to his aunt's treasures.
Phosphate heir Albright is caught up in a family struggle with his flaky trophy wife ("Third and last"), tree-hugging adult daughters and unsettled stepson about what to do with hundreds of mined-out acres in Bone Valley. The phosphate might be played out, but there are still fossils and artifacts all over the property — not to mention Toby, the resident elephant, living symbol of the company's name: Mammoth Mines.
The hunt by Doc and friends for the artifacts will lead to robbery and murder, to a sketchy bone-hunting tour guide and a belligerent biker with a high-tech prosthetic hand, to a high-speed chase at sea and a moment of temptation for Doc in a remote creek. Doc's dog, the tough, still-nameless retriever he rescued from the Everglades a couple of books back, will prove to have a certain genius as a watchdog, even though he never barks.
Toward the end of Bone Deep, I found it hard to keep track of exactly who was scamming whom, there was so much questionable behavior going on. But it's an exciting ride from the present deep into the past and back again — for almost everyone.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.