Randy Wayne White might be one of the last authors you'd expect to write a novel with a woman as its main character.
White has built a big following for his string of bestselling novels about Marion "Doc" Ford, a former deep-cover intelligence operative turned marine biologist and freelance investigator. Set in and around Ford's base in Sanibel, the 19 thrillers are fast-paced, laced with violence and macho enough to give off a whiff of testosterone as soon as you crack the pages.
But White takes a new tack in his latest novel, Gone. Its narrator is a young woman named Hannah Smith who makes her living as a fishing guide in the same territory Doc ranges.
Her name will be familiar to students of southwest Florida's history. White makes his character a great-granddaughter of the historical Hannah "Big Six" Smith, one of several sisters of a pioneer Florida family noted for their large stature and their toughness — Hannah's sister Sarah was known as "Ox Woman" for driving a team of oxen across the Everglades.
Gone's Hannah Four, as a friend calls her, has inherited the family tendencies toward height and independence. At 33, she's a college dropout and survivor of a "one-day marriage" who loves her work on the water, and doesn't even mind her sometimes clueless clientele. As the book opens, her biggest problems are wrangling her mother, whose early-stage dementia has started to erode her inhibitions, and fretting about her own stalled social life.
She soon discovers that her late Uncle Jake, from whom she inherited the fishing guide business, had another venture on the side. She knew he had a private investigation firm and even did some work for it. What she didn't know was that he did most of that investigating for a very, very rich man named Lawrence Seasons.
Hannah has taken Seasons fishing plenty of times, but now he needs her services for something else. His niece Olivia, a sheltered and apparently rather flighty young woman, has disappeared and refuses to communicate with her family. She seems to have taken off from her posh home in Naples with a skeevy drifter-handyman named Ricky Meeks. Seasons fears the worst, and he believes Hannah is the best person to find Olivia.
Hannah's search for her differs from the usual procedure in a Doc Ford book in several ways. Ford never undertakes a mission without a bristling arsenal and a bunch of high-tech gadgets, while Hannah's only weapon is an accidental one. Her methodology relies far more on her deep knowledge of the people of the coastal Florida community and her ability to connect with them. She's unfazed by anything she encounters, from a snooty rich woman who points out how much classier she is than Hannah and then belies herself by barraging Hannah with insults, to finding that Olivia's trail leads to a very expensive, very exclusive, very perverse cruise that couldn't exactly be called the Love Boat.
Hannah is a promising character, although she hasn't quite gelled yet as Doc Ford has. She's most appealing when she's in her element on the water, less convincing when she's mooning about her looks like a teenager. (And she has the oddest habit of sizing up other women's breasts by comparing them to produce items.)
When Ford and his enigmatic pal Tomlinson showed up for guest appearances (both, it seems, had some kind of history with Hannah's wild aunt, Hannah Three, who died in an explosion), I was a little afraid they might ride to the rescue. But White lets Hannah handle things on her own, and I'm guessing many of his fans will look forward to seeing her do it again.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.