To many outsiders, Florida is two islands of glittering non-reality connected by the asphalt ribbon of The Florida Turnpike. In the north, there’s the improbable agglomeration of theme palaces, hotels, and entertainment meccas known as Orlando; in the south, the art-deco glamour of Miami’s South Beach basks in the hot Caribbean sun during the day and cool neon at night.
The real Florida, the land of over eighteen million residents whose motto is “Working in Florida is a Tropical Depression,” lies, of course, elsewhere. Most tourists don’t get to see the Third World slums of Miami teeming a handful of miles west of glitzy South Beach, the beautiful but increasingly threatened Everglades, the poverty and desperation of rural northern Florida, or the pockets of hardscrabble subsistence farms nestled among the beautiful dunes and beaches of the Panhandle, better known to locals as “Lower Alabama” or “The Redneck Riviera.”
One corner of Florida, relatively overlooked by tourists but cursed with burgeoning development, is the southwestern strip of the state, also known as the Mangrove Coast or the Lee Island Coast. (In a state where no point of land is farther than fifty miles from salt water, each section has a nickname, from the First Coast around Jacksonville and St. Augustine to the Emerald Coast near Pensacola.) One of the last areas to hold out against the ever-expanding crush of urban development, Lee and Collier counties, home to cities like Cape Coral, Fort Myers, and Naples, are now feeling the blast-furnace heat of expansion and, yin to its yang, environmental destruction.
Off the coast of Fort Myers lies a fish-hook shaped barrier island called Sanibel. Here one can find the paradox of contemporary Florida playing out in thirty-three square miles and a population of just over six thousand souls: how to balance the requirements of preservation of Florida’s exotic and tropical beauty with the imperative of capitalism to expand and develop. Sanibel, over one-half of which consists of wildlife refuges and whose beaches have become the shelling capital of the world, is striving mightily to find the ideal equilibrium.
Sanibel Island is the principal setting for the books of one of Florida’s best novelists, Randy Wayne White. An Ohio native who moved to the area in 1972, White has seen work as a fishing guide, magazine contributor, and as a student of natural history, archaeology, and anthropology. He has traveled on assignment around the world, helped refugees flee from Cuba, and played on semipro baseball teams. A resident of Pine Island adjacent to Sanibel, he is the author of sixteen novels featuring his main protagonist, Marion “Doc” Ford, and his unlikely pal and helper, Tomlinson. His first Doc Ford novel, Sanibel Flats, was selected by the American Independent Mystery Booksellers Association as one of their Hundred Favorite Mysteries of the Twentieth Century.
White’s novels reveal a look at the authentic Florida, and frequently nearby Central and South America and the Caribbean, and largely bypass the commercial, touristy hotspots of the Sunshine State. You are far more likely to learn about La Belle and Immokalee than Disney World or SoBe.
The two protagonists in White’s novels couldn’t be more improbably linked. Doc Ford is a marine biologist; he keeps a laboratory and residence in a home on stilts on fictional Dinkins Bay (patterned after Tarpon Bay on the eastern side of the island where White worked as a fishing guide for over a dozen years.) To most who meet him, Ford appears a genial, reserved, slightly geeky man of stocky build who wears glasses and who values his privacy.
But Ford has a darker and murkier past and present. He was a highly-trained field operative of a clandestine intelligence service of the United States government. Although he has grown weary of the violence and danger his assignments required of him and has resigned from the service, a feral part of him deep in his core keeps him in the position of Michael Corleone in the third Godfather film, who lamented “every time I think I’m out, they drag me back in.”
His pal Tomlinson is a perfect foil for Ford. Tall, lanky, long haired and scraggly-bearded, Tomlinson seems to be a caricature of an aging hippy. He spouts Zen philosophy, imbibes copious amounts of alcohol, consumes cannabis and psychotropic chemicals, lives on a Morgan sailboat called the No Más, and generally presents the appearance of a wacky, harmless stoner: think a mature Jeff Spicoli in the body of Tommy Chong in his prime and you’ll get the picture. Yet Tomlinson, too, has a dark past, the consequences of which torture him and make him a more empathetic character.
Together or apart, Ford and Tomlinson get themselves involved in adventure around the Caribbean rim. To an extent, White writes in the tradition of Florida mystery writers like John B. MacDonald, James W. Hall, and Carl Hiaasen: fast-paced action, lush scenic description, social commentary, and over-the-top villains. White manages to keep all the elements of the story firmly under control.
In truth, many of Doc’s exploits are driven partly or exclusively by personal interests. Take, for example, one of White’s most recent works, Black Widow, which I recently finished reading. The story involves the drugging and sexual blackmail of a young female protégée of Ford’s, Shay Money, and three of her friends while they had a “girls’ weekend out” on the Caribbean island of St. Arc prior to Shay’s wedding. Doc volunteers to be the bagman for the payment of the blackmail money. When the threats continue, Doc sets about ensuring that the villains are deterred from their activities.
White’s novels are a tasty blend of interesting and sometimes exotic characters, near-flawless pacing, page-turning action, and a love for Florida and the Caribbean that shines from virtually every page. Unpretentious but with a subtle depth that rewards the reader, Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford series is highly recommended. If you’re like me, you’ll become an addict in short order.
Fortunately for the first-time reader, you’ve got sixteen tempting morsels to slake your appetite while waiting for the March 2010 release of the newest Doc Ford adventure, Deep Shadow.
As a footnote for would-be novelists, White has a series of writing exercises (currently numbering five) on his Doc Ford Country website that I heartily recommend as well.
© 2009, Kenneth M. Rhodes