As a big fan of Travis McGee and JDM, I’m always on the lookout for other books that provide a similar reading experience—what I call the McGee Wannabes. Books that feature a rugged, philosophizing hero who operates in a semi-tropical climate. This first Wannabe post takes a look at the fictional hero I think comes closest to McGee, Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford. Most of you, I’m sure, are quite familiar with him.
Doc runs a biological supply outfit out of the Dinkin’s Bay Marina on Sanibel, but also happens to be a part-time, super secret government agent. He has a brainy (but very eccentric) old hippie sidekick, Tomlinson. While White’s earlier Doc Ford books were reasonably true to the McGee tradition, IMO he jumped the shark in some of his later titles. I suppose those over-the-top adventures are routine for a super secret government agent—but they lose the McGee flavor that I prefer. And that’s what I treasure in a good Florida crime story. Also, White sometimes leaves Ford’s first-person POV, which I don’t like. I don’t want to be in anybody else’s head in these stories other than the hero’s.
Still, when White resists the urge for James Bondian grandiosity, he can produce a nice McGee-type tale. This post will look at a couple of those—something old, and something new.
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Captiva (1996) is the fourth Doc Ford adventure and the first to be written in first-person. That is what lifts this mystery/adventure to the top of the McGee Wannabe League. Though the first three third-person books are entertaining and well crafted, sharing Doc’s own voice is what brings this character alive. He is smart, knowledgeable, cranky, and full of opinions—much like another knight in rusted armor of whom we’re all fond. And, as a secret government agent, he has an even more impressive skill set when operating in the field.
This yarn begins with Doc and his sidekick Tomlinson out stargazing. Doc’s looking for some kind of eclipse involving Venus and Jupiter; Tomlinson’s attempting to communicate with space aliens. All of sudden a nearby dock at Dinkin’s Bay explodes in a mushroom of fire. Apparently a net fisherman—his livelihood soon to be banned by a new law—is taking it out on the local sports fisherfolk. Unfortunately for him, he’s killed in the explosion. But before he dies, he asks Tomlinson—who is at his bedside in the hospital—to give a message to his widow. Doc and Tomlinson head off to the net fishermen’s village to find her. Hannah Smith proves to be a tall, feisty, sexy (what else?), and very self-reliant fisherwoman. (White has a new series with a first-person protagonist called Hannah Smith. Does anyone know if it’s the same Hannah Smith that appears in Captiva?)
Tomlinson takes up with Hannah, helping her work on a book she wants to write. (It’s unclear whether he and she have anything erotic going on.) He sees the backwater island she lives on as a sort of tribal stamping ground of commercial net fishermen. Meanwhile, Doc gets involved in investigating the apparent war between the commercial fisherman and the sport fishermen who helped to get net fishing banned. He finds cable strung across a lagoon—obviously put there for purposes of decapitating a random sport fisherman.
Doc digs further into the intrigue and violence between the commercial net fisherman and the sports fishermen, while Tomlinson continues to help Hannah with her book. When Hannah turns up in Dinkin’s Bay—to fetch some of Tomlinson’s things—it becomes very clear that her sexual interest is focused like a laser on Doc, and they go at it hot and heavy. But however lusty and attractive Hannah may be, Doc doesn’t quite trust her—he thinks she has a hidden agenda. Then comes the awful news that Tomlinson has been brutally beaten by some of the thugs back on Hannah’s island—the word “SPY” carved in his forehead. The attack was so vicious that he’s lying comatose in a hospital, his survival an open question.
It’s at this point that Doc, former government black ops agent, decides to get serious and kick some butt. He heads out in the dead of night, grabs one of the thuggish net fishermen, and tortures a confession out of him—but in a very sneaky, manipulative way that has the fisherman eating out of his hand. From here Doc can zero in on the bad guy at the root of all this chaos and violence. But, of course, the mayhem is not yet over. More tragedy ensues.
Captiva has the three things most vital to a first-rate McGee cloning. First, Doc Ford is a thinker and ponderer and pontificator—not as heavy on the judgment as McGee, but enough to be interesting and sympathetic.
It’s of a relatively modest scale. The conflicts and violence it depicts are undoubtedly serious to the people involved. For Doc and the rest of the characters in Captiva, it’s very intense indeed. But in the big scheme of things, they’re small potatoes; just as they are in the best McGee stories. I mean, how many people would really care if an ex-football player had a car engine dropped on his head? How many people really would care if a few hundred commercial fishermen lose their livelihoods? The answer to both questions is, of course, not very many.
Finally, this is a pure Florida tale. The fight between commercial net fisherman and sport fishermen is a topic that would have engaged JDM. Not least, Doc gives us every bit as much of the flavor of the place—its people, its environment, its ecology, its corruptions—as Travis ever did. White, through the offices of Doc, offers a wonderful inside look at the life of a marina. If anything, he’s more generous and detailed in the depiction of Dinkin’s Bay than JDM is in portraying Bahia Mar.
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A newer Doc Ford adventure, Night Moves (2013), is a nice change from the Grand Guignol of some of his more recent outings, with their “supervillain” POVs and ex-presidents and whatnot. Doc stays relatively close to home at Dinkin’s Bay and deals with crises not so overblown as usual. IMO, this novel is closer to McGee than many other recent White efforts. And because of that, I’d rank it high among the twenty-one Doc Ford books White has written.
Several series of events coincide in this story.
First, Ford and his sidekick Tomlinson (who handily survived his severe injuries in Captiva) join a seaplane pilot to go searching for what they hope is the wreckage of the famous lost Flight 19—five Avenger torpedo planes that flew out of Lauderdale in 1945, never to be seen again. Their disappearance was one of the founding legends of the Bermuda Triangle. (You may remember the planes reappearing in the Sonoran desert in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)
Second, the uber-sexy but apparently sex-starved wife of a young property developer with mob connections hooks up with Tomlinson and wreaks havoc in his life, as well as Ford’s. Her mentally ill brother-in-law figures in the mayhem, as well.
Third, a big yacht docks at Dinkin’s Bay. Its owner is a Brazilian and a pilot for Swissair. When Ford runs the guy’s name by some of his intelligence sources, they reveal that he’s an elite hit man. Has he come to Dinkin’s Bay for Doc? Does he have some other target? Or is he merely on holiday?
Fourth, Tomlinson has been jerking around a dangerous drug dealer from Haiti—putting his own neck on the line.
White weaves these skeins of plot very nicely indeed. But what I think I like most about Night Moves is its modest scale. There’s plenty of action and danger, of course, but it’s of a magnitude that reminds me of a McGee adventure. And, for me, that’s always a good thing.
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Other Doc Fords I especially like—that IMO are closer to the McGee style—include Mangrove Coast, Ten Thousand Islands, Shark River, and Twelve Mile Limit. Of course, even the ones that are more overwrought have good entertainment value. And lest we forget, White’s sometimes bombastic stories have gotten him on the Times bestseller list; whereas toeing the line of McGee-style purity might not have. In his shoes, any author would do the same thing.