Randy Wayne White has built a legacy exploring Florida’s history and ecology. But an evocative look at Florida and its often ignored role in the Civil War can’t make up for a lack of action in “Haunted,” his third novel about Hannah Smith, a Gulf Coast fishing guide and private detective.
“Haunted” is more like a visit with an old friend who’s having a really unusual adventure than the action White has brought to his previous two Hannah novels.
Hannah is hired by Palm Beach socialite Bunny Tupplemeyer to investigate supernatural events supposedly happening in an abandoned historical house located on 600 acres near the Caloosahatchee River between Arcadia and Labelle. Bunny and the other investors planned to build condos on the land, but now she just wants out of the deal. The land is close to Hannah’s heart as two of her distant relatives may have fought there during the Civil War. For clues to the house’s past, Hannah reads her great-great uncle’s Civil War journal, which gives her a chilling and accurate account of often forgotten battles that happened in Florida.
But Hannah isn’t the only one looking for Civil War artifacts — the remote area seems overrun with archeologists, scam artists and local residents who include former circus performers. With help from Bunny’s niece, Birdy, a sheriff’s deputy, Hannah finds that discovering Civil War treasures can be lethal.
“Haunted” vividly illustrates Florida’s scenery and its role in the Civil War, bringing to life a neglected history. The wartime diary brings surprising twists to the plot and gives insight to what life was like in the Civil War era. But very little actually happens until the last 50 pages, although a final showdown vividly illustrates the rough and powerful beauty of the Everglades. But even then, the action meanders without a compass and several plot threads are left unexplained.
Hannah, so well sculpted in the series’ previous two novels, seems at sea here, as directionless as the plot. Never once do we believe that Birdy works as a sheriff’s deputy. White makes a few amusing, passing references to Ford by referring to him as “the biologist,” but the author wisely keeps Ford out of “Haunted.”
Still, “Haunted” shows that White is a skilled tour guide for a visceral visit to Florida.