Haunted: A Hannah Smith Novel
Those who are fans of Randy Wayne White and aren’t quite on board with his Hannah Smith series will be pleased to learn that this third and newest installment is a bit more sure-footed than its two predecessors. While it will not necessarily make you forget all about Doc Ford (who is totally absent here, other than for Hannah’s occasional reference to him as “The biologist”), White’s efforts make HAUNTED more than merely an interlude between the Ford novels.
The title refers in large part to an abandoned house located in the Florida Gulf Coast environs of Sanibel Island and the vicinity. The house has been purchased by a wealthy West Palm Beach widow who happens to be the aunt of a local policewoman named Birdy Tupplemeyer, who, in turn, is a friend of Hannah’s. Hannah, a part-time fishing guide and private investigator, has been hired to get the historical goods on the house, which is so strongly rumored to be haunted that it was the subject of a true-crime television program.
"[Y]ou definitely will think twice about taking one of those hours-long boat tours through the Florida swamp lands or waterways... And you won’t be able to visit a zoo anywhere without certain scenes from the book coming unbidden to your mind as well."
For reasons explained at some great length, Birdy’s aunt wants to rescind the deal on the basis that the sale occurred without the real estate agent providing a full disclosure of events that had transpired involving the property and could have the potential of impacting its value. It’s a fatal omission with respect to real estate under Florida law. The house itself is no prize, as is demonstrated in the early goings when Birdy and Hannah are the recipients of a skin-crawling vignette. That is the very least of the house’s problems, however. Its history is both interesting and morbid, given that it was a focal point for an important, if little-known or remembered, Civil War battle, one in which an ancestor of Hannah’s played a prominent role. It is also a bit hard on its prior owners: at least two of them have died under mysterious circumstances.
Hannah sees the project as a chance to track her family history and perhaps preserve the local environs, but a number of people have other ideas. The problem for Hannah and Birdy is that it is difficult to distinguish friend from foe, particularly when the rumor of some buried/abandoned Civil War treasure is thrown into the mix. If that isn’t enough, there is a primate research center nearby that is coupled with a venom milking center, a trailer park that has an extremely interesting set of residents, including a couple of self-styled witches, some circus people, and a psychopath or two. Almost everyone is lying about one thing or another.
Sound interesting? It is. However, White takes a good deal of time toward setting up everything and introducing his characters while describing at great length the natural flora that one expects from a book set in the Florida Gulf Coast. Accordingly, one needs to be patient. When things start to rock and roll about two-thirds of the way through, they really do. Hannah is on the wrong end of an extended pursuit through the Florida wilderness, hampered in a very interesting way but one-upped on her extremely unique pursuers by virtue of the extensive knowledge of the surroundings she has acquired as a fishing guide. That being said, you definitely will think twice about taking one of those hours-long boat tours through the Florida swamp lands or waterways, if you think about them at all. And you won’t be able to visit a zoo anywhere without certain scenes from the book coming unbidden to your mind as well.
What is most noteworthy about HAUNTED? It demonstrates that White most definitely still has the chops to raise a reader’s pulse rate; it just takes him a bit of time to get there, at least at this point in his career.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on September 26, 2014