Ever since the automobile became a commercially viable form of transportation (and really, even before then) oil has been a valuable commodity. As I know I don’t have to tell you, oil has made incredible fortunes for people. And as we’ll see, it’s become pretty much a necessity for modern infrastructures, at least until other forms of energy become feasible. With oil being such a critical part of life, it’s not surprising that it’s also the source of a great deal of conflict. So of course, it’s a natural as a theme for crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.
In James Lee Burke’s Black Cherry Blues, former blues singer Dixie Lee Pugh finds himself in a serious situation. His music career ended in a haze of drugs and alcohol, and a prison sentence didn’t help matters. Now he earns a legal living as a leaseman. One of his jobs takes him to Montana’s Blackfoot Reservation, where a deal is underway to lease some of the land for oil drilling. One night Pugh happens to overhear two men discussing two murders they’ve committed. Pugh doesn’t want to call attention to himself because of his past history. So he asks his old college friend Dave Robicheaux, who’s now a police officer in New Iberia, Louisiana, for help. Robicheaux is reluctant to get involved but when Pugh finds himself arrested on a major drugs charge, Robicheaux gets involved. He soon finds that the murders were all too real and that he’s gotten drawn into a major case involving greed and corruption around the oil drilling.
Bartholomew Gill’s McGarr and the Sienese Conspiracy (AKA Death of an Irish Consul) also deals with oil drilling. In that novel, Chief Inspector Peter McGarr gets involved in a case with international implications. Former SIS agents Browne and Hitchcock are murdered and both of their bodies left in the same place. McGarr believes that someone is targeting the SIS, and that the next victim may be newly-appointed British ambassador to Italy Sir Colin Cummings. Hoping he can prevent Cummings’ death, McGarr accompanies him to Italy. But that’s not enough to keep Cummings safe from a sniper’s bullet. Slowly, McGarr works his way through the connections among the three men and finds out that the deaths are related to high-level corruption and a bitter fight over valuable North Sea drilling rights.
In one plot thread of Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue, we meet Allan Mitchison. He saw a video of a North Shore oil rig as a child and immediately knew what he wanted to do for a living. Now he’s an oilman out of Aberdeen and all’s well – until the night he’s brutally murdered. Evidence leads to Anthony Ellis Kane – Tony El – who most likely committed the murder on behalf of someone else. So DI John Rebus starts to investigate to find out who would have wanted to murder a seemingly inoffensive oil driller. For that he looks into the connections between the people who work on the oil rig and the kind of person who’d know about Tony El. It turns out that Mitchison found out more about something than was safe for him to know and as is so often the case, died because of it.
Sarah Andrews’ Em Hansen is a forensic geologist who in Tensleep starts her career as a mudlogger for an oil company. Her job is to collect and analyse mud samples, which isn’t glamourous as it is. But matters are made worse by the fact that most of her male colleagues do not think an oil rig is any place for a woman. Then, Hansen’s mentor Bi ll Kretzmer is killed in what looks like a car accident. At first Hansen is willing to accept that explanation. But then co-worker Willie Sewell is killed too, apparently crushed by a horse. Hansen no longer thinks either death was an accident and starts to ask questions. As she investigates, we learn what life is like in the oil-drilling life. It may pay well, but it’s not exactly easy and fun.
To get a real sense of why people are willing to steal, lie and kill over oil, it’s important to remember just how integral it is to modern life. Just imagine a world with no oil. Think about everything that depends on the energy that comes from it. Although your mileage may vary on this as the saying goes, in my opinion, Alex Scarrow’s Last Light describes that kind of life as well as any crime novel could. The world’s oil supply is suddenly and deliberately cut off. The people behind that act are fairly nasty and the main plot concerns the reason the oil has been stopped. But far more interesting (well, at least in my opinion) is the story of Andy and Jenny Sutherland and their family, who are caught up in the chaos that follows. Andy is an oil engineer who happens to be in Iraq when the crisis begins. Jenny is in Manchester where she’s had a job interview. Their daughter Leona is at university and their son Jake is at a London boarding school. When everything falls apart, the Sutherlands try desperately to re-unite. It’s that story that really keeps the reader (well, this one anyway) engaged.
We see more of the power of oil in Scarrow’s follow-up novel Afterlight, which takes place ten years after the events in Last Light. At this point, Jenny Sutherland is the leader of a small group of people who’ve survived the catastrophe and are making a life for themselves in an abandoned oil rig. Their more or less orderly world begins to fray when they rescue a badly wounded stranger who was found in a nearby town. Matters get even more complicated when it’s discovered that another group of survivors, who live in London’s Millennium Dome, may have oil. When Jenny’s son Jake decides to go with a group to see if they can get the oil, Jenny is against the idea. But the group goes anyway and this leads to tragic consequences.
At least at this point in history, we’re awfully dependent on oil. It’s important in a million different big and little ways that you probably don’t think about until you really reflect on it. No wonder it plays such a role in crime fiction. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to fuel up…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Dingoes’ Way Out West.