Got a Job With a Company Drillin’ For Oil*

OilEver 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.


Filed under Alex Scarrow, Bartholomew Gill, Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke, Sarah Andrews

22 responses to “Got a Job With a Company Drillin’ For Oil*

  1. As it happens, Margot, I recently read a very good mystery that involves the oil industry – Kirke Mechem’s “The Strawstack Murder Case,” written in 1936. Set in Kansas, most of the central characters are involved in the oil industry and in exploring for oil and extracting it from the ground. Much of the second half of the book is devoted to a huge fire at an oil well and the desperate maneuvers necessary to put it out. It’s a classic from the American Golden Age with plenty of clues and a fascinating story with the oil industry at its center.

    • Les – Oh, interesting timing! And it does sound like a vivid portrayal of the oil industry of that era. Trust you to suggest such a great GA novel that precisely fits the theme of the post.

  2. CJ Box and Open Season – there’s a company trying to build an oil pipeline across open country I think. I very much enjoy the way those books report the tension between keeping the wilderness free, and the demands of big business…

    • Moira – Oh, yes indeed! I’m very happy that you mentioned that book because I meant to include it but didn’t. It’s a great look at that tension and all of the complications that arise. It’s nice an easy set of questions and there are no easy answers, and Box respects the reader enough to acknowledge that.

  3. Margot: Oil leases are at the core of a trio of books I have read.

    Most recently, in Alamo, North Dakota by Phil Rustad the ownership of some old oil leases in the lucrative oil fields of western North Dakota leads to murder.

    In A Settling of Accounts by Doug Schmeiser the rights of oil companies under oil leases in Alberta are disputed by a ranch family. There is great controversy on flaring gas.

    In Snow Job by William Deverell the murky, sometimes corrupt, world of international oil leases reaches back to Canada from central Asia. Representatives of a Canadian oil company are caught discussing a bribe.

    • Bill – Thanks for those suggestions; they’re exactly the kind of thing I had in mind when I wrote this post. You’ve also reminded me that I’ve wanted to spotlight a Deverell book for quite some time and haven’t yet done so. I appreciate the figurative kick in the pants about his work. And the whole question of ownership and leasing is in itself an interesting web, even independent of how valuable oil is. I’m sure that in real life those questions become at least as conflict-ridden as they are in fiction.

  4. Great topic Margot – two of my favouriite Lew Archer books by Ross Macdonald, THE DROWNING POOL (1950) and SLEEPING BEAUTY (1973), look at the environmental and social impact of the oil industry over twenty years apart with a fascinating (if ultimately depressing) final tally.

    • Sergio – Thanks for the kind words. And yes, both of those do deal with the big oil industry. I’d thought of including The Drowning Pool in this post, actually. Since I didn’t in the end, I’m glad you brought it up. And it’s interesting how even though those two books were written more than twenty years apart, the messages about oil aren’t that different…

  5. Haven’t read any of these, but they sound interesting. I’ve never thought of it, but Big Oil would be a natural for a theme in crime fiction…anytime that money is involved…

  6. In my growing up years, I read OIL by Jonathan Black, author of corporate thrillers, based on an American oil major’s bid to explore the black gold in distant China and the political and corporate intrigues and backstabbing that follow. In BEYOND THE BLACK STUMP by Nevil Shute, geologist Stanton Laird travels all the way from a small town in Oregon to the Australian outback in search of oil for his company. He finds a girl instead. Robin Moore’s DUBAI is a gripping tale of an American who strikes it rich in the Emirate through oil exploration and smuggling. Though not strictly crime-fiction, there are elements of crime in OIL and DUBAI of which I recommend the latter.

    • Prashant – Thanks very much for those suggestions. I’d heard that Dubai was a good read, but haven’t (yet) read it. I’ll have to add it to my list. And I’m glad you mentioned Nevil Shute’s work too. His work doesn’t get the attention that it once did, but he had real talent at combining thriller elements with character developments.

      • I’ve had some difficulty procuring Shute’s novels in Mumbai, having got just two in the past couple of years. I agree, he is a forgotten author whose books revolved around aeronautics (because of his WWII background) and Australia, a place he fell in love with and migrated to from Britain. He had an uncomplicated writing style.

  7. The oil industry would be interesting to read about, and I had not realized so many crime fiction books center around that topic. Lots of good suggestions here, including all those in the comments. Moira’s suggestions of Open Season by C. J. Box especially interested me, because I have been planning to try that series for years and just this year got a copy of that book. So I will move it up in priority.

    • Tracy – Oh, I’m glad to hear that. C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series is terrific, and Open Season certainly does have to do with oil drilling rights and the effect of oil greed. Even without that though, I think it’s a fine series and I recommend it.

  8. Fracking to extract oil and gas from the ground is creating big issues here in Colorado. Mark Stevens, who writes the Allison Coil mystery series, deals with this topic in his latest novel, “Buried by the Roan.”

    • Pat – Fracking is definitely creating a big controversy and generating a lot of bad feeling. Thanks for mentioning the Alison Coil series, too. I’ll confess I’ve not (yet) read Buried by the Roan, but you’ve reminded me that Stevens is an author to start watching…

  9. Col

    A few of Burke’s books reference the oil industry in Texas. Robicheaux’s back story has him losing his father in an oil disaster from memory. Plus he also wrote a story connecting with The Texas City disaster in 1947, the worst industrial disaster fatality-wise to hit the US.

    • Col – You’re right about that. The oil industry plays a big role in Louisiana’s economy and so on, so it’s natural I think that it does in the stories too.

  10. I remember Ian Rankin saying at an event that he described the visit to an oil rig completely from his own imagination. I always think it’s amazing when writers are able to do this.

    • Sarah – Oh, that’s fantastic that you got to hear Rankin speak. And he is quite skilled at vivid depictions so I’m not surprised he uses his imagination that well. And I have to say: being able to use one’s imagination is one of the fun things about writing…

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