Mangrove Lightning (A Doc Ford Novel)
“some thrills, some chills, and a interesting look into little-known Florida history . . . along with some touches of madness and possession . . .”
While marine biologist “Doc” Ford pretends to be in Fort Lauderdale attending a convention for amateur naturalists, he’s actually about to wreak justice on a member of a porn ring headquartered in the Bahamas. At the same time, his friend Tomlinson, Buddhist priest and contemporary hippie, embarks on an odd and frightening adventure.
“Tootsie” Barnes, a retired fishing guide, comes to Tomlinson with an unbelievable and horrifying story. During Prohibition, a deputy and his entire family disappeared, never to be seen again. The guess is that their bodies were tossed into a large lake called Chino Hole, for the gators to dispose of. One of Tootsie’s moonshine-running relatives was involved. More recently, several of Tootsie’s closer kin have died in odd accidents, and he believes karma has finally decided to collect its debts.
Having read Albert’s Barlow’s journal recounting the crime, Tomlinson scouts out the terrain on Marco Island, specifically Chino Hole, a place containing fish that shouldn’t be there. There’s also a deserted village where Chinese laborers lived, people smuggled in from Cuba to work a railroad no longer existing.
Tomlinson has an idea someone wants to force Barnes off his land so the government can claim it, something they can’t do as long as a family member maintains legal residence.
In the midst of his reconnaissance, Tomlinson gets a warning from an unseen sources, the kind he’s gotten before and the kind he doesn’t want.
“There were many times he’d conjured a bipolar exchange with the creature inside his brain, an evil twin who delighted in mayhem.”
Sometimes he doesn’t listen to the warning; this time he does, but forewarned isn’t necessarily forearmed.
In the meantime, Tootsie’s niece, Grace, disappears. The teenager, keeping company with a questionable character who may or may not be related to the Lambeths, owners of the biggest mangrove lightning—the Florida term for moonshine—operation on Marco Island, had recently offered to live on her uncle’s place on his property so Barnes could leave the island.
When Doc returns from his “convention,” he and Tomlinson begin their investigation in earnest, to discover how saltwater fish got into a freshwater lake . . . who’s trying to convince Tootsie his ancestors crimes are finally coming home to roost, and who, or what, has Gracie. There’s also a connection to Hannah Smith, Ford’s ex, who’s innocently drawn into the circle of violence because she befriended Gracie.
What follows is a blending of the supernatural, a great deal of little known Florida history, and a fight with a killer whose murderous heritage convinces him he’s possessed by a bloodthirsty spirit.
Based on the true story of a deputy and his family who disappeared in 1925 during Prohibition, that story is so interwoven with the local history of the area, Doc’s involvement with the Nassau incident and an English noblewoman he meets there, and his attempts to reestablish a relationship with his ex, as well as the running-out-of-time search for Gracie, that the reader may be overwhelmed with so much happening. Indeed, it may become uncertain which is the plot, which the subplot, and what is simply extraneous and incidental material.
The descriptions of the Florida Keys are beautiful while at the same time daunting, suggesting a place many would want to visit, but only from the safety of a Coast Guard gunboat.
The majority of the story, however, may be confusing to the reader because there’s no introduction of the main characters and therefore no chance to establish empathy with them. Ford and Tomlinson are simply dropped into the middle of a phone conversation and the plot(s) progress from there. Only a few clues are given as to who these two men are and why they do what they do. It’s never fully explained why a marine biologist is a vigilante after a Bahamian porn ring nor why Tomlinson became a Buddhist priest or what causes the warnings he mentally receives. Intriguing little snippets are hinted at but never fully detailed.
One suggestion would be to read the first story in this series in the hopes it gives the needed information to make this one more understandable. For those who prefer to rough it, however, Mangrove Lightning, will offer some thrills, some chills, and an interesting look into a little-known area of Florida history along with some very disturbing touches of madness and possession.