PRECIOUS GEMS AND PRECIOUS CHILDREN
We first meet Doc Ford, in this first book of Randy Wayne White’s eponymously named series, as he emerges naked, but for his Nikes, from an underground tunnel across from the Presidential Palace in Masagua, Central America. Doc is only a few steps ahead of palace security, which has chased him from the bedroom of the President’s wife. However, their tryst was no mere dalliance. In fact, it was only the first in a five-year relationship that had slowly changed past friendship into love.
And it was not only their first tryst but also the only one they would have, as it was Doc’s last night in Masagua as a CIA operative. After ten years with the Agency, he had been asked to resign after he used agency influence and resources to back Juan Rivera, who leads a guerilla resistance to the current president. It seems the U.S. government wants to keep the weak, unintelligent and ineffectual Don Jorge Balserio as their puppet rather than adjust to dealing with a more knowledgeable and competent Rivera.
So over the next few pages, we follow as Doc Ford emigrates back to the U.S. and works his way slowly south down the coastal areas of the Atlantic. He finally settles in a rented stilt house built over the water in his hometown of Sanibel Island, Florida. Using his PhD in marine biology, he establishes a small company geared to provide marine specimens to laboratories and schools. Over a year’s time, he settles into the microcosm that is life in Dinkins Bay Marina where his stilt house is located. He is well liked and well respected by the live-aboards and commercial fishermen alike and has even established a friendly but non-physical relationship with an artist living nearby, Jessica McClure.
Then the phone in the marina office rings – for Doc – and it’s Rafe Hollins, Doc’s childhood best friend. They have only seen each other twice since high school, both times in South or Central America. While Doc had gone on to college, the military and the CIA, Rafe had gone into flying private planes, establishing a reputation as a smuggler of any form of contraband except drugs.
Well, it seems that Rafe has smuggled two times too many. First, he kidnapped his 8-year-old son away from his druggie whore of an ex-wife and smuggled him into Costa Rica. Secondly, he stole several Mayan artifacts from one of his employers during a flight. Now, not only is the FBI trying to arrest Rafe, his former employer has kidnapped the son and is holding him in Masagua. And to top it all off, the “employer” is Julio Zacul, the rival and degenerate opposition to Juan Rivera for control of the country.
Rafe wants Doc to use his CIA expertise to help him get his son back. But when Doc goes to meet him at their childhood hideaway, he finds Rafe’s body hanging from a tree, the face eaten away by vultures, with a suicide note nearby. Doc believes that the suicide has been staged. And when the county police whisk the body away and have it cremated immediately, against Florida laws, Doc is convinced of murder. Now the stage is set for two concurrent operations: prove that Rafe has been murdered and rescue the son.
At this point, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the classic quote from “Casablanca,” when Humphrey Bogart says, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world, [she] walks into mine.” First, what are the odds that the kidnapped child is being held in the very same backwater country that Doc was stationed in? Secondly, what are the odds that the child is in a country that Doc cannot legally enter for another year due to the terms of his CIA separation? And finally, just what are the odds that the kidnapper is the direct enemy of the man Ford supported while he was running his operation there?
Since this is White’s debut novel and since it was first published in 1990, I decided to chalk the “coincidences” up to rookie status and to the culture of the decade. And proceeding on, I found a deviously crafted storyline that culminated in a serious case of reading into the middle of the night. Even though the book is written in third person, the reader is not provided any omniscience into the plot. In fact, it is a matter of what the author does not say at specific points along the line rather than what he does say that lays the best clues out for speculation.
The one thing I wasn’t prepared for and should have been, considering the copyright date, was the extensive use of data dumps. They came in two categories – marine biological facts and Mayan cultural history. Interesting as the data was, I found myself scanning past it to get to the “real” action. Then I realized that understanding that “real” action was dependent on the information in the dumps, particularly the ones on ancient Mayan culture. So back I went, re-read the facts and made sure that I didn’t skim again.
In spite of the coincidences and, for me, too much detail in the marine biology data dumps, the end result was a debut novel of substance and character. There are now, as I write this review, 21 books in the series with Doc Ford as lead and Tomlinson as his sidekick. And Randy Wayne White has established them solidly in this first book as characters whose lives I wish to continue reading about.
Cover Art from Goodreads