Many of Florida's flourishing crop of crime writers find their weird and wild subject matter in the big cities and around the state's thickly populated rim.
Randy Wayne White has set many of his bestselling mysteries along the barrier islands and beaches, too, but lately he has been sending his fictional characters into Florida's interior, where even wilder and weirder stuff awaits.
That's certainly the case in Haunted, the third novel in White's newer series about southwest Florida fishing guide and part-time private investigator Hannah Smith. In the first two books she was an on-and-off romantic interest for White's longtime series character Doc Ford, but this time around they're off, and Ford is on some mysterious adventure of his own (which we'll no doubt be reading about in White's next book).
Not that Hannah needs any hand-holding. In fact, in Haunted she will just about out-Ford Ford for resourcefulness, stamina and courage in the face of the bizarre.
At first, the case doesn't look as if it will require much of those qualities. Hannah is hired by a very wealthy Palm Beach widow, Bunny Tupplemeyer, to check into the status of a real estate deal. Bunny bought a big chunk of land near LaBelle, north of the Caloosahatchee River, that she wants to develop. But there's a decrepit mansion on the property, home of the late cattle baron Charles Langford Cadence, that has been the subject of a TV ghost-hunter show. That led to the discovery of artifacts and human bones that might indicate a forgotten Civil War battle took place on the site — all of which will gum up any development plans, and none of which was disclosed by the land's seller.
Bunny wants Hannah to look into it because she can talk to the "locals" ("Hicks and rednecks is what she meant," Hannah thinks) — the implication being that Hannah, descendent of many Florida pioneers, is a "local," too. She doesn't care much for the widow, but she takes the job because Bunny is the aunt of her pal Birdy Tupplemeyer, an adventurous and lusty deputy sheriff.
That explains why, as Haunted begins, Hannah and Birdy are camping out in the crumbling Cadence house — an evening interrupted when a horde of scorpions falls from the ceiling onto a sleeping Birdy.
If only that were the worst thing that happens. For starters, it looks as if there may be evidence both of a ghost — a tall, dark-haired, wailing woman seen in the house, possibly Irene Cadence, the owner's wife — and of the Civil War battle. The latter is supported by what Hannah reads in a journal in her possession that belonged to one of her ancestors, a blockade runner named Ben Summerlin — a journal that several other people are very interested in.
One of them is an archeologist they meet at the site, Theo Ivanhoff. Birdy thinks he's sexy, Hannah thinks he's creepy. Also creepy is a nearby establishment called Slew Vaccine and Herpetile, rumored to harbor all manner of venomous snakes as well as a couple of free-roaming chimpanzees. Or maybe they're the product of some unholy breeding of chimp and ape.
Or maybe not.
And then there's the campground down the road, whose denizens include a trio of middle-aged, dope-smoking witches from Cassadaga; some carnival workers, including one billed as the Chuman; and a retired gent, Belton Matás, an amateur historian whose ears perk up at the mention of Summerlin's diary.
As always, White peppers Hannah's adventures with all manner of fascinating Florida arcana, from the key role played by salt in the state's little-known Civil War history to just how long it takes the neurotoxin in a coral snake's bite to kill someone.
The latter third of Haunted is one wild chase scene as Hannah battles villainous humans, crazed beasts, a nightmarish snake stampede, a river crawling with gators and a treacherous brush fire.
By the book's end, there will be enough loose ends for a cat-o'-nine-tails. But by the time Hannah fires the very last of seven bullets in her late uncle's Smith & Wesson Devel, readers will be too breathless about what's next to worry about that.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.