Is Doc Ford losing his touch?
Early in Deep Blue, Randy Wayne White's 23rd novel about the mild-mannered marine biologist/lethal secret agent, Ford heads across the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatán, "where a resort the size of a cruise ship was anchored to a silver beach."
Ford is not there to chill in "the illusion of limitless excess." He's working, and his assignment is a man named David Abdel Cashmere, a failed actor from Chicago turned ISIS executioner. In videos Ford has watched in preparation, Cashmere wields a ruby-handled knife for severing heads.
Ford is an old hand at wet work, and with an ally working inside the resort his task of taking out the vacationing Cashmere should be simple.
When Ford leaves Mexico, two people are dead, but neither of them is Cashmere, and the terrorist's fate is unclear.
Back at his home base at Dinkin's Bay Marina on Sanibel Island, Doc is sleep-deprived and feeling uncharacteristically rattled. It doesn't help when his nameless dog, an obsessive Chesapeake Bay retriever, almost drowns. What's really ominous is what the dog was trying to haul up from the bottom of the boat basin: an extremely high-tech drone with no identifying marks that seemed to be shooting video of the marina before Ford shot it down.
Ford soon recovers his edge. He has to. Even though his marina neighbors are caught up in their traditional celebration of the 26 Days of Christmas, orchestrated by Ford's brilliant stoner pal, Tomlinson (who is also a lot more than he seems), there is danger all around.
One of the people who died in Mexico was Winslow Shepherd, "Australia's version of Bill Ayers. ... a self-styled guerilla" involved in politically motivated bombings (one of them deadly) in his youth, later a university professor.
Winslow passed his revolutionary bent to his son, Julian, a tech genius: "By age sixteen, he had hacked the computer systems of the Pentagon, NASA, U.S. Naval Intelligence, and others."
Father and son disappeared after eight countries issued arrest warrants accusing them of selling intel to terrorist organizations. The two had been feuding, but with his father dead the son, now calling himself Julian Solo, seems to be focusing his terrifying talents on Ford — and maybe on those closest to him as well.
There are other things to worry about. Some are global: Ford's government handler shakes him up with scary talk about not knowing who's really running the show anymore. Others are local: Is Ford's neighbor Vargas Diemer, the suave Brazilian with the million-dollar yacht, a threat just because he has the hots for Ford's ex-girlfriend, fishing guide Hannah Smith, or is Diemer (who seems to be in the same line of work as Ford, and I'm not talking about collecting jellyfish specimens) more dangerous than that? And others are very personal, like the information — some of it so secret it's beyond classified — that Julian unearths about Ford and tries to use to blackmail him.
With the eccentric but always effective help of "boat mystic" Tomlinson, Ford tries to sort it all out. Along the way, he'll deploy some of the high-tech equipment his pals at CentCom in Tampa like to lend him, and Julian will bring out his own toys. (Personal submarine, anyone?) And that nameless dog will finally, after several books, get a handle, in memory of one of White's closest writer friends.
In Deep Blue, White turns a cool variation on the dramatic principle known as Chekhov's gun. The Russian playwright wrote, "One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off." In this case, you can't pepper the beginning of the book with references to a stupendous great white shark named Dolly wreaking havoc with dive tourism off the Southwest Florida coast without bringing her back to, in effect, go off.
And she will, when almost everyone least expects it.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.