In his latest novel, Seduced, Randy Wayne White wastes no time getting the story into high gear. By Page 7, southwest Florida fishing guide Hannah Smith is gazing down at a dead man, who is naked except for a Stetson placed "strategically over his pelvis."
The man has died in the bed of Hannah's mother, Loretta. Harney Chatham was a former lieutenant governor and an "old-time Florida millionaire who, twenty years ago, had been my mother's secret lover," Hannah tells us, and it seems that romance was not strictly historical. Although the 80-year-old Chatham looks to have died of natural causes, his body being found in Loretta's bed is likely to cause problems with his much younger current wife, not to mention attracting media attention.
So Hannah, usually the soul of common sense, finds herself helping Chatham's longtime chauffeur and confidant, Reggie, haul the body back to "the governor's" hunting camp, the Salt Creek Gun Club, to make it look as if he shuffled off his mortal coil while alone.
To ensure confidentiality, heartbroken Reggie hires Hannah in her other professional guise of private investigator, although given her family's long association with Chatham, she already has reason to help. But relocating the man's corpse will seem simple compared to what his death sets in motion.
Fans of White's books will know that this is his fourth in a series about Hannah, which is an offshoot of his bestselling 23-book (so far) series about Sanibel resident Marion "Doc" Ford, a marine biologist with a shadow career in black ops.
Hannah and Doc are a sometime couple, and this book opens with them having a phone chat about invasive species (sexy, huh?), notably the parasites that cause citrus greening, which threatens to wipe out the state's citrus industry, and a giant python Doc saw from a plane as it swam near an island along the coast. The introduction of those two subjects is not accidental.
At the hunting camp, Hannah meets Kermit Bigalow, who works as the grove manager for Chatham's property and hence is intensely concerned with citrus greening. He's also intensely interested in Hannah, and she's undeniably attracted to him.
But Kermit is married and the father of a young daughter, so scrupulous Hannah tries to resist, even though her wild-girl friend Birdy tells her, "Pick the right married man, it's like owning a puppy you don't have to babysit. ..."
Hannah is also a little put off by how interested Kermit is when she tells him about some very old citrus trees on her family's property — her ancestors were pioneer settlers — and an even older orange tree she remembers seeing as a girl on one of the remote Ten Thousand Islands that stretch along the western edge of the Everglades.
Kermit will not be the only one interested in that heritage citrus. Both Ford and two of Hannah's fishing-guide clients, a couple who are in the biotech industry, tell her that a tree from original Spanish rootstock that has survived over the centuries might potentially have DNA that could provide resistance to greening — and thus be worth millions, even billions of dollars.
So Hannah and a friend who works for the state's Agriculture Department go in search of the tree she remembers from years before. Then, the remote island was a paradise of birds, alive with nests. But when they arrive, it's silent as the tomb, with no signs of birds or small mammals. They find an orange, but while they hunt for the tree, they find themselves hunted — by huge, and very hungry, pythons.
Back at home, Hannah is dealing with other possible predators, among them Chatham's widow, a hell-on-wheels former cheerleader named Lonnie. Reggie has hinted that her marriage to Chatham was a sham and possibly related to a long-ago crime (which might be why she fires him right after her husband's body is discovered). Lonnie alternates between trying to befriend and intimidate Hannah, telling her, "The two most dangerous animals on earth. ... do you know what they are? I'll tell you: stupid men and smart women."
On the water, Hannah is dodging a bizarre character with a Yosemite Sam mustache and a fast catamaran who seems to be stalking her. And she's trying to figure out the intentions of another one of Chatham's longtime associates, a mysterious fixer who offers her help with the quest for the "mother tree."
Although she dreads returning to that island, Hannah will do it, leading to a breathless and nightmarish finale. By the closing chapter of Seduced, her life will be changed in ways she couldn't have imagined when she first saw that strategic Stetson.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.