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Onyx reviews: Twelve Mile Limit by Randy Wayne White

Four divers set out from western Florida to dive a deep-water wreck over fifty miles offshore. When they fail to return, an extensive search begins, covering hundreds of square miles of the Gulf of Mexico. Only one survivor is found, a young woman spotted atop a light tower, naked, waving her colorful wet suit to catch the attention of the search and rescue team.

She tells rescuers that their small boat rolled over shortly after they surfaced from a dive. The four friends clung to the anchor line until it sank several hours later. She became separated from her companions. No trace is of the others is found—the search is eventually called off.

Among the missing is Janet Mueller, a friend and neighbor of marine biologist Doc Ford, the hero of several previous books by Randy Wayne White. The survivor, Amanda Gardner, seeks out Janet's friends to tell them her side of what happened. In the days and weeks after the Seminole Wind sank, rumors spread that the foursome were up to something illicit. Amanda wants Ford to help prove her story. She also has a secret she hasn't told anyone else—she says another boat appeared the night of the accident. She believes—or wants to believe—that her friends are still alive somewhere.

But where? If the three divers were rescued by another boat, why are they still missing? Ford reluctantly agrees to investigate the accident. Details at the wreck scene support Amanda's portrayal of events, yet nothing explains the complete disappearance of the other three people.

It's at this point that readers unfamiliar with Doc Ford come to realize that he's more than a meek, mild biologist interested in octopi, crabs and manatees. Ford has a past in government service that provides him with access to sensitive and classified information. The transformation occurs so late in the book that it comes as a bit of a surprise. When Ford takes on some unsavory characters involved in Florida's illicit trade in drugs and illegal immigrants, Clark Kent becomes Superman.

White crafts an exciting story, which, as the afterward explains, is based in part on a real-life incident. A boat like the Seminole Wind did sink under similar circumstances and three of the victims were never found. His accurate depiction of the measures taken by the search and rescue crews is based on the real incident. His explanation of what happens to swimmers stranded in water for days on end, what they experience, how tides can affect them, are also based on his own research.

From a tale of marine disaster, Twelve Mile Limit transforms into a Robert Ludlum novel. Ford and Amanda Gardner go to Columbia to track down leads provided via Ford's government contacts. He's armed to the teeth with high-tech gadgetry and the expertise to use it. Ford ends up in remote, lawless regions of the South American country, fighting for his life against drug traffickers, revolutionaries, cannibalistic natives who carry out the age-old tradition of shrinking the heads of their enemies, and mercenaries who are paid for each head they can deliver.

Ford is a captivating character, a worthy successor to John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee. The secondary characters are colorful and motivated. White's habit of leaping forward in the story—only to explain how he got there a page or two later—effectively builds suspense. White fills idle moments with interesting tidbits of social commentary without becoming overly preachy. While not as famous as other Florida writers, White has a solid and growing audience.

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