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Beyond Beaches: Dark Crimes In The Sunshine State

For many visitors, Florida is a land of beaches, theme parks and resorts, but since moving here in the early 1970s, author Randy Wayne White has been fascinated by another Florida — an older place where life still moves to the natural rhythms of currents and tide.

White is the author of two cookbooks, several works of nonfiction and dozens of novels, including 16 "Doc Ford" mysteries. Though primarily a crime writer, he also likes to write about Florida history. In some of his books he's written about the Calusa Indians, who lived here thousands of years ago, building villages on huge mounds of shells.

White lives on Florida's Pine Island, in a house overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. He's been there since 1974, though nowadays he only stays part time, since fans of his novels stop by too often to allow him to work undisturbed. In his side yard, researchers from the University of Florida have begun an excavation, looking for clues of Florida's original inhabitants.

White says he loves that his house is so connected to the history of the land:

"We're sitting in what would be called an old cracker house, which was built in the late 1800s on the remnants of a shell pyramid," he says of his home on Pine Island. "And I love that, that precisely where we're sitting now people have been telling stories for three thousand years. And that's a fact."

Dark Water, Dark Places

Before he became a successful mystery writer, White spent 13 years as a fishing guide, which may explain why he has the easy manner and weathered look of someone who has spent a lot of time on the water.

Fishermen and charter boat captains show up in his "Doc Ford" novels, but the title character of the series is a marine biologist and former government agent who lives and works on Florida's southwest coast.

Doc Ford spends much of his time studying bull sharks — a fascination White shares. The author notes that bull sharks are an intriguing metaphor for his protagonist: "There are similarities in behavior: [Doc's] traveled to far-flung places, far upriver, the dark water, dark places"

White himself is rarely far from the water, and much of the action in his books takes place there as well. Though Doc Ford and his eccentric, post-1960s counter-cultural friend Tomlinson embark on adventures that take them all over the hemisphere, the action often begins and ends in Dinkins Bay, a fictional marina that's based upon the marina where White worked as a fishing guide.

White says he works hard to capture the sights and sounds of first light and sunset as the wind comes up on the Gulf or Caribbean. Looking out over the water, he notes that where some people see a flat, blue plane, he sees geography:

"I look out here and I see some potholes. I look out this way, I see oyster bars. You can't see them, but if you're in a boat, you would stop abruptly if you went over them. There are rivers back up into the back country. It's an incredible area."

The Eye Of The Fishing Guide

White travels a lot — he recently returned from a month in Cartagena, Colombia and he is a regular visitor to Cuba, which he visited using a Treasury department license for writers. When he's home, you can find him and his laptop at Doc Ford's Rum Bar and Restaurant in Fort Myers, one of two watering holes he is a part owner of.

"The tough thing about writing is you go into a room alone, you close the door and you do your work," says White. "To be able to come out to a place like this afterwards, and I actually do a lot of writing here before hours or after hours, it's terrific."

The view from the bar also allows White to revisit his past; across the harbor from his restaurant, behind the shrimp boats, is a ramshackle stilt house where White lived when he was still working as a fishing guide.

Looking out, White says: "The water is alive. If we could get a mask and fins and drop down off these docks, we'd see snook and redfish and probably goliath grouper. It's an amazing world unto itself and a very thin demarcation between one world and the other."

It's that unseen world, just below the surface, that intrigues White. After 20 years as a mystery writer, he still has the eye of a fishing guide.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.