Doc Ford: Something Old, Something New

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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7 thoughts on “Doc Ford: Something Old, Something New

  1. D. R. Excellent “Doc Ford: Something Old, Something New” blog and in my opinion, you could not have chosen a better character than Doc Ford for your first “McGee Wannabe” series. (Although RWW might say that Doc Ford can stand on his own now thank you very much. He’s been around since 1990.)

    I’ve read all of the Doc Ford series, in fact, I’ve everything that RWW has written, including his Randy Striker series and Hannah Smith. (Read only one of the ‘manbook’ for lack of a better description.)

    I can’t recall the Hannah Smith connection you mentioned but still have the books so will take a look and see if I can figure it out because there is a connection. I just can’t remember it now.

    I’ve seen RWW three, four times at workshops/seminars/book signings and have heard him tell this story three times. And this happened years before RWW was a published author.

    He was a great admirer of JDM and especially the Travis McGee series. One time he was with some buddies and they were drinking and talking about TM and JDM. Someone said, paraphrasing here, ‘he lives north of here (they were at Sanibel) and we should get in the boat and go see him.’ The idea got better the more beer they drank so off they went.

    They found the JDM waterfront home by map and landed at his dock. JDM came out and they introduced themselves saying what great fans they were, yada, yada, yada, then left. RWW said he was very gracious under the circumstances, to the three of them, and they chatted about 1/2 hour.

    A few months later they were talking about their previous trip to see JDM and drinking beer once again and decided it would be a great idea to go see him again. So off they went.

    Docking their boat he saw JDM walking out of the Florida room towards them and yell back to his wife, “our ‘friends’ are bacccckkk.”

    White said after that he (they) decided they would leave the nice author JDM alone. But he did say how gracious JDM was to three complete strangers and fans who arrived by boat and had been drinking.

    Yes, RWW was a great admirer of JDM and he says in public how much the Travis McGee character influenced his Doc Ford character. He not ashamed to say it.

    And RWW is a very nice, courteous and gracious fellow.

    I’m in total agreement with your opinion on the books you mentioned. I read them in order starting with “Sanibel Flats” and was hooked from there. The last four/five books of Doc Ford fell flat for me. Same with the Hannah Smith books; they didn’t seem like the same author who wrote the earlier ones. (Sorry, RWW.)

  2. Although it is not one of the first person stories, my favorite Doc Ford so far is “The Man Who Invented Florida”. In this story Doc is only one of several POV characters. The wide ranging story line doesn’t include secret agent moves or an implacable villain. It is delightfully clever. Randy Wayne White shows what he is capable of in this effort.

    • Hi Kevin:

      That’s funny because that just happens to be my least favorite.

      However, I can say that I thought of it as a “reference” books of sorts with some background information that was helpful in later books.

      And it wasn’t that I thought it was bad or anything, it just wasn’t one of my favorites. But a lot of people say what you said Kevin, that it was their favorite.

  3. Hi Cathy –

    I should have noted that “Florida” is a real outlier in the saga of Doc and I’m not surprised at the dichotomy of opinions. In any case, as D.R. noted the strong similarities with Travis don’t really commence until RWW goes first person in “Captiva”. It’s my understanding that RWW, in search of a better deal, switched publishers between the two books and its my guess that it is no accident that the series became more McGee-ish at the same time.

    “Florida” demonstrates that RWW is capable of writing character driven stories as well as satisfying action thrillers. Nonetheless, Tomlinson is the reason I’ll continue to work my way through the Doc canon. Dude, he is one groovy side-kick.

    • Hello Kevin:

      Oh, yes, Tomlinson. I love that guy, too. I have a t-shirt that has his saying on it and I’m paraphrasing as best I can recall..’I woke up not knowing where I was but was happy to know the blood on me was my own.’ Something along those lines. I’ve worn it a couple of times and get odd looks. I wonder why?

      I’m just remembering (it’s been a number of years since I read RWW early Doc Ford) but it seems that at the beginning, Doc Ford was kind of a holdover with similar characteristics of the other character (Dusky MacMorgan) which he wrote as Randy Striker. I read MacMorgan after I had finished the entire series of Doc Ford, up to that time, anyway.

      I’ll fess up too, that I read for the pure enjoyment of the series, not looking for any connection to Travis although I do recall thinking there were some similarities.

      As a native Floridian, I love books where Florida is the setting and the environmental aspect of both, was right down my alley. Then throw in the baseball, got me hook, line and sinker. (BTW, going to spring Braves game mid-March, and excited.)

      Yeah, Dude, Tomlinson is quite the guy. Tell you what: Doc Ford needs to watch his women with Tomlinson around. Now Travis, there was honor and ‘hands off’ but with Tomlinson, all gloves are off…Katy bar the door. He’s a hoot.

      Enjoying this conversation, Kevin.

      Cheers! Cathy

  4. My circle of John D. fanatic/friends and I are always looking for something, anything close to McGee. RWW and the Doc Ford series has come the closest in my opinion. At least the ones in first person early in the series. He seems to have lost his way over the years. Still, a nice run and I will go back to the gems.

    • Agree about White and Doc Ford. The books are erratic. Some of the early first-person yarns were great. Too many of the newer ones, I’m afraid, jumped the shark. And the most recent one I read (about the bone hunters) was just boring.

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