Chasing Midnight. By Randy Wayne White. Putnam. $25.95.
Randy Wayne White’s 19th Doc Ford novel improves as it lurches along – and that’s a good thing, because at the start it is very, very weak. White assumes that readers already know everything they need to about Doc Ford and his friend Tomlinson, because he makes no attempt to introduce them or explain much about who they are, what they do or why they operate as a pair. This sort of lack of explanation works in novels with a strong satirical element, such as Tim Dorsey’s series about psychopathic vigilante Serge Storms and his stoner buddy, Coleman – a series that, like White’s, is focused on Florida and includes a great deal of accurate scene-setting. But White intends Chasing Midnight and his other Doc Ford books to be straightforward thrillers, a form in which it would help to know something about the main characters.
Not that there seems to be much worth knowing as this book gets started. Stripped to its essentials, Doc Ford’s narration comes down to this: “I did something really stupid and got into trouble; then I did something else really stupid and got into more trouble; then I made a mistake I should not have made and almost died; by the way, I am an international agent for a shadowy part of the government, with a license to kill and tremendous expertise in all forms of combat; then I made another near-fatal error; then I made a bad decision…” If you think Doc Ford’s announcement of his prowess is completely at odds with what actually happens to him, you are right – his statement about what he can do is entirely in conflict with what he does do. And not just at the start of the book: he keeps making the sorts of boneheaded, near-fatal mistakes that would label him “rank amateur” if readers did not know that he is supposed to have significant expertise in cloak-and-dagger matters. Longtime fans of this series, however, may just enjoy the many narrow escapes and not be troubled by any of this, any more than they may be bewildered by a sudden and never-revisited narrative detour into “the problems I’d been having with women,” a digression that includes comments on “the smart lady biologist I’d been dating” and “my workout pal and former lover…and our toddler daughter.” These things will fit neatly enough into enthusiasts’ pre-existing knowledge of Doc Ford and the adventures into which White throws him. But for anyone new to the series or less than devoted to its backstory, the whole first part of Chasing Midnight, and some later parts as well, will be creakier than Florida’s deteriorating piers and rotting vegetation.
Thank goodness, it gets somewhat better as the story progresses at a headlong pace. Doc Ford is on private Vanderbilt Island, investigating international trade in caviar at a party organized by a Russian criminal oligarch and attended by three other high-placed bad guys from other countries. Doc Ford has gotten into this super-high-security place thanks to a moderately believable Tomlinson connection. Also on the island – not believably at all – are some eco-terrorists, who have managed to crash the party even though Doc Ford himself could barely find a way to get to it. These characters have no character at all: they are not only cardboard but thin cardboard at that (although no one in the book really has much personality: character development is not White’s forte). The radicals’ nefarious plot, in what they regard as a righteous (indeed, Biblical) cause, involves cutting off the island from all forms of communication (electricity, phones, Internet, everything), making demands of the evil crime bosses, and killing hostages until they get what they want. And – uh, oh – there are signs aplenty suggesting that Tomlinson may have “turned radical again” and helped set up the whole sordid scheme. The ends-justify-the-means notion and the setting side by side of two forms of evildoing could lead to all sorts of moral dilemmas, but Doc Ford is not an especially introspective protagonist, and White’s interest is in drama, not argument or philosophy. Readers who check their thoughtfulness at the door will find themselves pulled along inexorably into a scheme that Doc Ford needs to understand and then unravel before midnight, at which time something truly awful (and decidedly fatal) is going to happen – hence the book’s title.
The working-out of the plot, though, strains credulity to and beyond the breaking point. Readers are supposed to believe that vicious international criminal masterminds, with enormous wealth and tight security, can be captured and killed by a pair of psychopaths who can barely figure out which end of a gun to point. And readers are also supposed to believe that Doc Ford will stop pursuing a boat carrying a hostage and bomb in order to pluck a deranged bad guy out of shallow water, then take his captive aboard and neither knock him out nor tie him up – giving the bad guy, of course, a chance to attack the allegedly professional and allegedly highly experienced Doc Ford at the worst possible instant and almost derail the hero’s rescue plans.
There are far too many moments like this in Chasing Midnight, with the result that the details rather than the larger story turn out to be the book’s most interesting elements. White does his homework when it comes to the small stuff, and his discussions of the Mote Marine Laboratories in Sarasota, of the intricacies of the sturgeon life cycle, and of a piece of thermal-detection equipment called the TAM-14 – seamlessly integrated into the narrative – are fascinating. They give Doc Ford’s derring-do an aura of plausibility that is further enhanced by White’s intimate knowledge of the Florida settings where he places this book and his earlier ones. Indeed, the places and equipment tend to have a greater sense of reality than the thinly sketched characters, who exist to fulfill specific roles in the plot rather than to be driven by anything in their personalities to behave as they do. No one will read Chasing Midnight in search of profundity – or find any.
The book also suffers from the persistent irritation of poor editing. Thrillers are best when readers get swept up in them, not brought up short by errors and confusions, of which there are plenty here. A sampling: “that would me shoot on sight” (p. 25); “the Japanese have destroyed the bull shark population in Lake Nicaragua and continues its assault” (p. 71); “an ancient, resonate sound” (p. 111); “the snook is an ascendant predatory” (p. 114); “I was looking at the pistol on the floor, wondering how she would react if picked it up” (p. 130); “one of the richest woman in all of China” (p. 133); “Ammunition, I’d been thinking about that. From all the gunfire I’d heard, everyone of the island had to be running low” (p. 153); “I sent him a telepathic reminder even though I don’t believe telepathy” (p. 225); “the only international currencies that never depreciates” (p. 236); “try to take a lot of people with him when died” (p. 276); “contained what little ammunition that remained” (p. 279); “That’s not what I wanted. But not yet” (p. 297); “she pulled away and looked around the room, accessing the situation” (p. 300). White in general writes with less flair than such other Florida-focused crime-and-suspense writers as Carl Hiaasen and the aforementioned Dorsey. But there is a certain raw power to White’s plots, and occasional ingenuity to supplement the sheer doggedness of Doc Ford’s approaches to difficult problems. Chasing Midnight is not one of White’s best novels and not a very good entry point for readers who are not already familiar with the series: Tomlinson is a complete and utter fool, and when Doc Ford says at one point, “my screwups still topped the list,” he understates things – if this were real life, he would have been dead by page 10. Nevertheless, fans of Doc Ford will find in Chasing Midnight a sufficient dose of the melodramatic excitement and local color that have made White’s books popular ever since Sanibel Flats appeared in 1990.