Florida author Randy Wayne White's new novel, Deceived, blasts off like a rocket. Within the first 65 pages, its narrator fends off a 12-foot hammerhead shark, two angry half-starved pit bulls and a mysterious ax-wielding human attacker — and gets between the sheets with Doc Ford.
Wait a minute, you say. If you're one of White's many fans, you might have thought I was talking about White's longtime series character, Marion "Doc" Ford, all along. Those are just the sort of perils he's always dealing with as a mild-mannered marine biologist with a sideline as a secret agent adept at black ops. In fact, last time we saw Doc (spoiler alert!) at the end of Night Moves, published in March, he was struggling to survive a stingray barb buried in his chest.
Ford shows up in Deceived, but its main character is Hannah Smith, the young fishing guide and part-time private investigator White introduced in Gone in 2012. The flirtation between her and Doc in that book turns into a relationship in this one, although plenty more happens as well, as those first 65 pages suggest.
The hammerhead encounter occurs while Hannah is out fishing with two new clients, a handsome young county special prosecutor named Joel Ransler and an older man, Delmont Chatham, from a prominent local family. First a 100-pound tarpon leaps into the boat, knocking both men overboard; then, while Hannah is walking the big fish in shallow water to revive it before turning it loose, the shark cruises too close for comfort. The predatory fish will go away, but Ransler and Chatham will keep showing up, for reasons Hannah can't quite figure out at first.
She has other things to worry about. Doc might need more surgery. On the home front, Hannah's mother, Loretta, who has some mental impairment following a stroke, is sparring with their new neighbors. Hannah, descendant of Florida pioneers and fisherfolk who loves her bungalow in the island village of Sulfur Wells, is not fond of them either: "They had finished their warehouse-sized concrete-and-stucco a few months earlier, after flattening a centuries-old Indian mound in the process..."
When a snotty local official shows up informing Hannah her mother's vegetable garden might be disturbing an archeological site, she knows it's the revenge of the neighbor, Dr. Alice Candor. Candor has lots of money and a deep mean streak, as well as a sketchy background running medical clinics that bilked Medicare in another state. (A character compares her resume to that of Florida's current governor.)
A more immediate concern is the whereabouts of Loretta's lifelong friend Rosanna Helms, known as Pinky. Pinky is uncharacteristically not answering her phone, so Hannah goes to check on her at her isolated, barnlike house on shell-paved Pay Day Road. The road got its name back in the 1990s, when former fishermen like Rosanna's husband, Dwight, turned to smuggling marijuana and later cocaine after regulations and net bans pushed them out of work. Years ago Dwight was murdered there, probably by drug dealers, but the present is the problem — Hannah finds not Pinky but those two fierce dogs and someone with an ax.
Later, the police will find neither.
As Hannah tries to connect the dots between Pinky's fate, a suspicious scheme to raise funds for a "Fisherfolk of South Florida" museum, Ransler's real motives for hanging around and a hidden episode in Loretta's past, she can't turn to Doc for help.
Just about as soon as the two of them got cozy, Doc received a phone call, and now he's in Venezuela, where, oddly, the leader of a rebel group has disappeared while snorkeling. White has a little fun with Hannah fretting about Ford stumbling into violence — she doesn't yet have a clue about his night job. After she's attacked at Pinky's, she tells him she's fine: "I also didn't want a man who studied fish for a living to get involved in a matter that was dangerous and best left to experts."
Hannah does get help from a new sidekick, a wisecracking deputy from Boston, Liberty "Birdy" Tupplemeyer. They bond over a mutual passion for Florida's prehistory and their shared singlehood — as Birdy says, "When God needs a laugh, He hauls out His list of single women and tacks it to a dartboard."
Hannah herself is becoming a more solid character. In Gone she seemed a little tentative and unformed compared to Doc — although, of course, White has been building him up layer by layer over the course of 20 books.
This time around Hannah is more fully realized, self-sufficient and smart, and her deep knowledge of the island community is an integral part of the story. No wonder Doc digs her.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.