September 06, 2012
(++) GOING, GOING
Gone. By Randy Wayne White. Putnam. $25.95.
It is impossible to know whether Randy Wayne White was at some level aware that his 19th Doc Ford novel, Chasing Midnight, was a significant disappointment and that it was therefore time to strike out in a somewhat new direction – or whether he was moving in that new direction already and, perhaps as a result, Chasing Midnight turned into a bit of an afterthought. Whichever scenario may be true, what White has done now is to go off on something of a tangent to his Doc Ford books, picking up a character originally introduced in Captiva (1995) and turning her into the protagonist of a planned new series. She is Hannah Smith, a thirtysomething, emotionally immature woman who runs a charter boat service in the Sanibel/Captiva area of Southwest Florida – an area that former fishing guide White knows well and, as usual, portrays with considerable scene-setting skill. Hannah is, like Doc Ford, deeply tied to her community, and in fact has an aunt of the same name who has been one of Doc’s girlfriends – a role that Hannah turns out to be interested in as well. White makes it a point to give cameo roles in Gone to Tomlinson and other characters from the Doc Ford series, although not to Doc himself, who is mentioned several times and has a role on the fringes of this story, but never actually shows up.
Hannah is a formulaic reluctant detective: she has an unused but active private investigator's license, dating to the days when she helped her late uncle do some investigations, which were a sideline for him. The plot has Hannah hired by a wealthy man to find his heiress niece, Olivia, a troubled young woman who may have run off with a manipulative and abusive sociopath named Ricky Meeks – who, it turns out (not very realistically, despite some male fantasies), controls women through degrading sex. Olivia has disappeared without signing papers that would bring her millions, so surely something odd is going on. White makes it clear that Hannah, who narrates the book, is tough and resilient, which is a good thing, since she is also fumble-fingered (the way she loses her gun at one point is just silly) and humorless. In fact, Hannah suffers from many of the same inadequacies that Doc Ford had in Chasing Midnight, which seems to point to the problems as White’s issues rather than those of his characters. For example, Hannah makes her living as a fishing guide, and anglers will enjoy White’s usual discursive forays into piscine matters; but to ratchet up the attempted suspense, White has this supposedly expert boater leave her phone where quick acceleration sends it overboard – and no, she does not have a phone case that floats. Also, at one point Hannah goes off alone at night, into a dangerous area with which she is not familiar; and she does not tell anyone where she is going, because someone would somehow have stopped her – which makes no sense unless that “someone” would be White, whose manipulative authorial hand is far too apparent in Gone, as it was in Chasing Midnight.
At this point, Hannah is too dull and undeveloped a character to carry the weight of a novel, much less a series. Yet she is the best of the women in Gone. Olivia is witless, and other female characters are drunk, slutty, manipulative or just generally unpleasant. There are a few positive male characters, such as a talented photographer, but the utterly stereotypical “sassy gay guy who is the narrator’s best friend” is at least as big a cliché as the novice private eye who has to solve a tough case. And the sloppy writing, which editors may think is part of White’s style but is really just, well, sloppy, is irritating (“where I’d helped out at every once in a while,” “is as about as shapely,” “It was 9:30 Saturday morning and was aware I didn’t look my best,” “a cormorant, it’s snaky emerald eyes watching”).
White – not to put too fine a point on it – is getting lazy. Much of the plot of Gone parallels that of John D. MacDonald’s first Travis McGee book, the 1964 novel The Deep Blue Good-by, although White never mentions MacDonald’s book as a source or describes Gone as any sort of homage. Also, Hannah generally freezes up when a crisis hits and succeeds more through luck and the author’s plot manipulations than because of her own abilities or strength of character. And White, very disappointingly, even gets some factual details about Florida wrong, as when he has Hannah say she would have more than an hour of daylight after arriving at a location at 8:00 p.m. – when the year’s latest sunset in Southwest Florida is at about 8:45 (a fact to which White refers elsewhere).
There is a “Perils of Pauline” feeling to Hannah’s exploits, as she stumbles into trouble and then more or less stumbles out again. This dovetails with the “good girl” aspects of Hannah that make her less interesting than she could be, from her old-fashioned sexual mores to her decision on what to do, or not do, to the villain at the book’s climax. Add in the fact that the bad guy is clearly identified almost at the start – so there is no real mystery here – and you have a novel that rises or falls based almost entirely on how interesting and attractive its protagonist is. Hannah may be attractive (rather improbably, she tells readers so, more than once), but she is not particularly interesting. And neither, unfortunately, is Gone.