Review by Phil Jason (accepted for publication in Florida Weekly, but freelancers like me are on forced hiatus)
Salt River, by Randy Wayne White. Putman. 368 pages. Hardcover $27.00.
Several centers of interest intertwine to provide an engaging addition to the Doc Ford series. This 26th contribution to the series, coming two years after “Caribbean Rim,” shows that Mr. White has not lost his touch and is still among the elite thriller writers in the nation.
Readers new to Randy Wayne White (hereafter RWW) need to know just a few things about his Doc Ford character. Doc is a marine biologist with an independent practice. He works, off and on, for a beyond top secret government agency. He is a skilled and avid fisherman with a love of boats and great skills of navigation and employment of shipboard gadgetry. He has an on and off romance with a female fishing guide, the beautiful and independent Hannah Smith (title character of four RWW novels). He has a middle-aged hippy-type friend named Tomlinson. He loves his home territory of Florida’s Sanibel Island. He’s good with guns.
So what’s happening in “Salt River?” Doc has recently found himself in the possession of a horde of rare Spanish coins that he has wrestled away from disreputable treasure hunter. Shady government employees, one of them is IRS agent Leo Alomar and the other a Nassau customs agent Rayvon Darwin, “a mobster in uniform,” are looking for the leverage that will make Doc want to “share” his treasure. Doc’s skill set, we must assume, is up to the task of avoiding any traps set by these unscrupulous men.
Tomlinson has discovered that his youthful adventure “donating” to a for-profit sperm bank has created a growing family of young adults with Tomlinson DNA. These offspring have found each other and are looking for more siblings. They are planning an event at which daddy Tomlinson will get to know them. It’s not clear just what the motive of each happens to be. Tomlinson is particularly concerned about the motives of Deville, one of the young men.
One of Tomlinson’s seed, a beautiful young woman named Delia, makes a play for Doc’s attention and more. She knows how close Doc and Tomlinson have been for many years, and she has a dose of emotional instability that is dangerous to herself and to Doc. She can tease, she can attract sympathy, she is vulnerable, and she is also ashamed of her propensities.
Doc better be careful, especially as his relationship with Hannah Smith is not going as he would like. He fathered Hannah’s child and is working hard, and effectively, to prove himself a good father to their young son, who lives with Hannah. But Hannah is leary of Doc’s behavior. Too often he must fabricate stories to cover his disappearances when called to duty by that clandestine agency. Hannah knows when he’s fibbing. Delia’s presence doesn’t help matters.
RWW’s books do a fine job of mixing the familiar with the less familiar. He makes the Dinken’s Bay Marina setting in SW Florida an attractive place to live and work. The lifestyle is casual, the friendships pleasurable. Readers can watch Doc in his laboratory, housed at the marina, as he works on his scientific projects. His friend Mack runs the marina with a sure hand, keeping things dependably relaxing.
Mr. White paints this little world of fishermen and boaters with indelible hues. Sometimes danger shows up at or near the marina, but most often the danger is somewhere else and for one reason or another Doc is driven to contend with it.
RWW’s fans expect to be exposed to interesting locals in the SW Florida area and also the Caribbean islands. His secret life takes him to many places, and in this novel establishing a faux identity as Morris Berg is part of the tradecraft that keeps the plot humming.
RWW draws his familiar and new characters with confidence. He makes their individual voices and speech patterns distinctive. After a while, the alert reader will know who’s talking without the names being mentioned.
Doc remains as multi-dimensional as ever. A true friend, a man of courage and varied skills. A man with the self-knowledge that leads to an appropriate humility. His future with Hannah remains cloudy. Tomlinson’s zaniness remains outlandish and a constant text for Doc’s patience.
After the two-year wait, it’s good to have Doc back and in good form.