Sanibel Flats by Randy Wayne White

Read May 2022
Recommended for fans of thrillers, marine biology
★   ★   ★     

Ah, the airport thriller. White’s entry into the genre is solid, albeit rather peculiar. What can we say? It was the 1990s. A lot of strange things happened then, including White’s idea to use a fictional South American country Masagua as part of his setting, as well as two fictional Mayan tribes. One part of my brain ended up poking at it, trying to analyze the ‘why.’ I could not work out if he thought he was being sensitive by using a fictionalized people, or lazy with characterization. Perhaps lazy, because despite being in Florida, and despite being in Costa Rica and a fictional South American country, White tries to give us some local flavor by using two Spanish words: ‘calle,’ and ‘tienda.’ Oh, yes, my gringo friends: ‘street‘ and ‘store.’ Not particularly relevant either. It’s just so peculiar.

But enough about the imaginary culture. What about the  wierd white people culture? White’s particular take specializes in the Florida coastal community, homespun locals and Northern white people exploiting the Keys. There’s also touches of the crazy conventioneers visiting Florida, the obnoxious low-level businessmen and the women on sexual holiday.

The other specialty White brings to the series is his interest in fish biology. There’s little bits about bullhead sharks, squid, and tarpon mixed into the story. Marion Ford is doctor of marine biology, early military, now retired from government work with a few priceless contacts remaining. It’s a solid set-up, with just enough tantilizing bits and pieces of backstory that White isn’t locked into any one direction with his hero, should the series take off (spoiler: it did).

The beginning is intriguing, but slow. It seems like White is pulling on a lot of threads here, but of course, they are all linked and are able to be unraveled in the end. It begins with an old friend, Rafe, contacting Ford and asking for help recovering his kidnapped son. Avoiding spoilers, it eventually heads in more international-thriller directions. Tomilson, local denzien and man of unexpected talents ends up playing mission sidekick and often, comic relief:

“We might be gone for a while; keep that in mind. Maybe a week, maybe three.”
“Hell, three weeks or three months, I still only got two pairs of pants.”

The main character is a bit of a cad, however, which makes it less enjoyable from my perspective. There’s actually a bit that takes place in a Costa Rican whorehouse (as White calls it) that I think is supposed to show how the character is not judgemental about the women working there–although he does call it a ‘whorehouse’–and anyway, it’s not like he needs to pay for sex–he just wants people to know he doesn’t have anything against women earning their money that way, of course. (Except that he tries to talk an unhappy white American out of doing it and to go back home). It’s all very regressive, but not unusual on the scale of male detectives (thinking of early Elvis Cole in L.A., early Matt Scudder in NYC, early Dave Robicheaux in New Orleans, early Spenser in Boston), so I mention it more as a ‘your-tolerance-may-vary’ kind of thing, as well as hoping it will improve as White moves into the 21st century.

Overall, I rather enjoyed it, but I’m drawn toward marine biology. Actually, I happen to be drawn to archeology and historical Mayan culture as well, so it was a pity White decided to camoflauge his cultural references. Tomilson ended up being a stand-out character for me, bringing a needed touch of both humor and ethics to the story. As a first book in a series, it has a lot of promis. The writing is generally competent, closer to early Robert B. Parker than late, a cut above Michael Connelly but below Lawrence Block or Robert Crais, if that’s any help.


About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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2 Responses to Sanibel Flats by Randy Wayne White

  1. Ola G says:

    Oh, airport books! This topic deserves a post! I haven’t had much luck with airport books, glad to see you’re faring better in this regard. The only thriller/mystery that would fit into a marine biology (although more into swamp biology) category that I’ve read was Mayne’s Black Coral, about Underwater Investigation Unit – here’s a link if you’re curious: 🙂

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