By JOSEPH W. SMITH III
Florida's Sanibel Island boasts shell-strewn beaches, seaside resorts, ubiquitous bike paths and countless elegant, colorful birds; it's also home to Doc Ford's Rum Bar & Grille - and to the fictional adventurer who gave that restaurant its name.
A marine biologist and retired NSA agent, Marion "Doc" Ford is the protagonist in a series of successful, Sanibel-based crime novels by Randy Wayne White - who lives on nearby Pine Island; I grabbed a signed copy of his latest, "Gone," when my wife and I dined at Doc's during our recent Gulf Coast vacation (see the Travel section on Page F-5).
"Gone" has flaws, but I forgave them all for its salty seaside atmosphere and spell-binding climax.
White's newest bestseller is not a Ford novel; Doc appears briefly, but "Gone" is focused on 31-year-old fishing guide and part-time detective Hannah Smith.
Feisty, smart and just a little self-conscious, Hannah was named for a long-ago real-life Florida legend who chopped wood and hunted hogs for a living - and whose sister, Sarah ("the Ox Woman"), drove an oxcart across the Everglades before there were roads.
In "Gone," Hannah searches for a missing woman named Olivia Seasons, last seen with a construction worker who may have abducted her - and who quickly emerges as a sadistic and abusive psychopath.
Despite some explosive material, White never describes the book's many sexual encounters in any detail. He's admirably restrained in this regard - yet he compensates by loading the novel with highly sexualized characters and situations, along with an uncomfortable metrosexual ethic where anything goes, as long as nobody gets hurt.
I couldn't figure out whether White was using this to spice up the slow-moving plot or to play out his stated theme that all human activity is motivated by sex. Maybe both.
I say "slow-moving" because "Gone" takes too long to work up steam. The book is never boring, but the first 18 of its 27 chapters consist largely of dialogue and investigation; an early action scene is customary in crime-thrillers, and I was hoping Hannah would at least get away from civilization and into some of Coastal Florida's more exotic locales.
This does happen eventually - but until then, it's a standard private-eye procedural, fleshed out with solid writing, enchanting evocation of its Gulf island milieu and appealingly idiosyncratic characters.
It takes guts for a man to write from a female's point of view, and I'll say this for White - he sure understands women. In his hands, Hannah comes instantly to life; her vivid, likable persona is one reason the climax works so well.
During that long and terrifying encounter with the diabolical Randy Meeks - which does finally move Hannah into a frighteningly authentic maze of marsh and mangrove - my heart was pounding, and I literally had to force myself to slow down.
And White doesn't stint on the length of this exciting portion, either: It's nearly a third of the book.
"Gone" won't be the last Randy Wayne White tale I read.
aaa (out of four)