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Saturday, Nov 18, 2017
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Doc Ford creator tries out woman’s voice

If there’s a man’s man among thriller writers, he’s Randy Wayne White, the barrel-chested outdoorsman who enlightened and amazed magazine readers with his global exploits and who does his fiction writing at the back of a Sanibel bar.

For Florida readers, especially, White — who in real life agitates for fair sportfishing in Gulf waters and advises us in a cookbook how to dish up the local seafood — looms large in the signature series of thrillers featuring biologist-adventurer Marion “Doc” Ford.

Ford isn’t exactly White, but they’re both coastal Florida characters.

So 23 years into the acclaimed Doc Ford books, most of them titled with a one-two punch like “Sanibel Flats” or “Tampa Burn,” White tries to write like a woman. It’s just a little off the mark.

“Deceived” is the second in a new series featuring Hannah Smith, following the debut novel “Gone” and featuring a tough woman inspired by real-life tough women from a historic Florida family and from among White’s own ancestors.

This departure allows White to work a smaller, tighter story palette than he does in the 20 books centered on Ford, whose skills as a former CIA operative push him into far-flung adventures — confronting Nazi naval history in “Dark Light,” for example, or diving into geology with “Deep Shadow.”

“Deceived” takes us no further than good, old-fashioned Florida political corruption, and just a stone’s throw from Dinkins Bay Marina, Doc Ford’s fictional home. The story features a charity scam, pill mills, drug running and archeological desecration — not to mention pit bulls — all set in rural, southwest Florida.

The plot summary, in other words, reads a little like the ripped-from-the-headlines satire of Carl Hiaasen or Tim Dorsey.

As always, White paints beautifully in words the unique natural and man-made settings that constitute our corner of the world. As a writer, he’s the skilled fishing guide, seeing what others don’t, working his way through skinny waters that leave lesser boaters high and dry. Here, for example, marked by sharp cadence and alliteration, is the descriptive opening of Chapter 2 in “Deceived”:

“There are spring mornings so calm off Sanibel Island that in bays where islands block the breeze, saltwater bonds like blue gel and, if you’re in a good boat, the surface feels as solid as ice and as slick.”

That’s Hannah Smith talking, and if you haven’t figured it out, she — as was White — is a fishing guide, good as they come at reading tides in the flats where she grew up.

Her occupation is central to the evil twists and turns of the plot. In one early scene, foreshadowing the role two clients will play as the story unwinds, a giant tarpon flings itself into her boat, walloping the two. As they deal with the chaos, we learn much about their character as men.

What helps make the scene remarkable, though, is slime. Lots of it. That White is a genuine Florida voice comes through in, of all things, the details involved in cleaning up this mess, then safely sending off the poor, bewildered, silver behemoth.

As a native of these parts, Hannah affords White new directions in storytelling not available with Doc Ford, whose mysterious, dark past drove him here late in life as something of a refugee. Writers of thriller series often look for new protagonists to freshen the possibilities, like best-seller Jeffrey Deaver and his California crime fighter Kathryn Dance. Hannah Smith is a welcome addition to the genre.

Hannah doesn’t really take us far from the Randy Wayne White formula because she’s dating Doc Ford — they make a handsome couple, of course — and getting life advice from Ford’s lanky, stoner-genius compatriot Tomlinson. Both make cameo appearances in “Deceived.”

Still, Hannah’s troubled family history, woven tightly into the plot, distinguishes this among White’s novels and makes for a compelling sequel to the series opener.

White might need to work a little on giving this woman a unique and female voice. Granted, she works in one mostly male field and moonlights in another as a fledgling private investigator. But as a narrator she sounds a lot like the man who’s becoming the love of her life.

She does spend a lot of time interacting with women, including a ruthless doctor of a neighbor, a reckless female deputy, her own semi-demented mother and the mother’s loyal friends.

That Mom has so few redeeming qualities, though, raises questions of credibility in the novel: How could this woman have birthed and raised our morally centered heroine? What’s more, an encounter between the two the morning after Hannah’s night in the sack with Doc Ford comes off more as male wisecracking than genuine mother-daughter dialogue.

Quips Mom, “Is that a bounce in your step or are you walking funny?”

Hannah’s just getting started, though. With his keen eye for Florida and its unique cast of characters, even man’s man White should have no trouble investing her with a voice all her own.

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