Florida's Sanibel Island is famous for its shell-strewn beaches and exotic wildlife, but on a recent visit, I came away equally impressed by Randy Wayne White, a local novelist who often sets his tales in that Gulf Coast region.
Ever pick up an ordinary-looking novel and discover you're in the hands of a master? That's what happened when I grabbed Wayne's dandy 2002 thriller "Twelve Mile Limit" at a Sanibel bookstore.
About half of his 40-plus books feature Marion "Doc" Ford, a retired National Security Agency agent and marine biologist with a knack for helping folks in trouble.
(One of Sanibel's best eateries -Doc Ford's Rum Bar and Grille - is named for this character; signed copies of White's books are sold at restaurant, where White himself often hangs out.)
In "Twelve Mile Limit," Ford investigates the disappearance of three scuba divers whose craft went down in moderate seas. They all had top-of-the-line flotation devices - yet a six-day Coast Guard search yielded no trace.
The real-life mystery on which the book is based was never solved, but Wayne takes Ford on a twisty quest in search of answers, with an atmospheric climax amid the jungles of Colombia.
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Atmosphere, in fact, is among White's strengths. Having worked for years as a fishing guide, he writes with breath-taking authenticity about life in and around the ocean; a White paperback is like an $8 trip to the Gulf Coast - without the luggage or sand flies.
In keeping with the laid-back ambience of his beach-bum setting, White's plot is more rambling than linear, foraying into conflicts with a conceited movie star and the ongoing disappearance of various fish from Ford's laboratory.
In addition to the salty, sun-soaked atmosphere, White's other strength is encyclopedic knowledge of everything from chemistry to shark-attacks to high-tech weaponry to human trafficking.
In three sentences, he managed to explain the use of hours, minutes and seconds in latitude and longitude. A long-time fan of seagoing literature (Joseph Conrad, Alistair MacLean, Hammond Innes, Robb White), I've read about this for years but never really grasped it until now.
Granted, that says more about me than it does about White - but I like a popular, fast-moving book that also conveys real info.
There are nuggets of memorable wisdom as well; my favorite follows a description of fishing regulations that put small-boat owners out of business, leaving the market to conglomerates: "By disabling the people it can control, bureaucracy empowers the people and nations it cannot control."
I couldn't agree with Ford's cynical, secular, carefree world view -kind of a mix of hard science and Jimmy Buffett - but it's great beach reading and I hope to take White along on many future seaside holidays.
With several bestsellers to his name, it's no wonder Booklist recently dubbed White "one of the hottest writers in America."
3 1/2 stars (out of four)