Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Black Water Rising--A Review

http://content-8.powells.com/cgi-bin/imageDB.cgi?isbn=9780061735868

To continue the "oil" theme of the previous three posts, I just read a hard-boiled thriller set in Houston where the main villains are a major oil company. Black Water Rising is Attica Locke's first novel. Her main character is a small-time personal injury lawyer named Jay Porter. The time is 1981.

Right off the bat, Locke makes a small geography error.
The city's planning and development department even went so far as to pave a walkway along the part of the bayou that runs through Memorial Park.
I wish! Anyway, pretty inauspicious. But Locke has a pretty good grasp on writing a thriller. I think this book has some fatal flaws, which reflect bad research on her part, but I still enjoyed reading it.

Jay Porter is the best kind of protagonist for this kind of book. Seriously flawed, with something in his past that he can't get over. If your main character is a police detective, you almost need to have something in his past that prevents him from advancing. (Because you can't keep writing new books if your guy gets promoted out of hands-on investigation.) So sometimes the thing about the protagonist is that he's an alcoholic or just such an ornery cuss that he stays stuck at detective level--you can see this in Harry Bosch in the Michael Connelly books, and in Rebus in Ian Rankin's books. Walter Mosely's Easy Rawlins has a sketchy past in Texas. (In the P.D. James Dalgliesh novels, the main character not have anything holding him back. Consequently, he has been promoted so high that he can only investigate murders of M.P.s and bishops and similarly high-level victims!)

In Porter's case, he was a student radical at the University of Houston. He was accused of plotting the death of a suspected agent provocatuer in his group. He went through the trial and was acquitted, but it scarred him. So many of his fellow radicals (in Houston and around the country) were meeting accidents or getting killed, etc. He got scared. He felt he may have been fingered by his lover at the time, a white radical woman (the race thing is a big part of this book, obviously). He dropped out of the movement, kept his head low, finished his degree, got a law degree, married a preacher's daughter and basically devoted himself to providing for her--and he kept out of politics. That said, by 1981 his law practice is barely making ends meet and is a bit on the sleazy side. (Porter is a slightly downmarket version of Locke's father, Gene Locke, a former student radical who became an attorney and currently running for mayor of Houston.)

The female student radical is now mayor of Houston. Cynthia Maddox is kind of a substitute for Kathryn Whitmire. Like Whitmire, Maddox went to school at U.H. (although Maddox transfers to Georgetown sometime around Porter's trial). Maddox comes into city government after serving on Lloyd Bentson's staff. Maddox is sort of a villain here, and it was possibly her that set up Porter. I wonder what Whitmire (who was never a radical and stayed at the University of Houston to get a bachelors and then a masters in accounting) would think of this?

Other quasi-fictional characters include the Cole brothers. They run Cole Oil, which is sort of an independent producer that somehow became a major. Think of them as a combination of the Cullen family and Texaco.

The main problem with this book has to do with oil. From this point on, it's all spoilers (or SPOILERS, if you prefer), so feel free to stop reading. Basically, Cole Oil is the villain. A murder at the beginning of the novel, that Porter and his wife sort of witness, is related to certain actions that Cole oil is taking to manipulate oil prices. Their manipulation consists of holding oil off the market by pumping into a salt mine. (It is also mentioned that Cole Oil shut down two refineries in order to create a shortage of refined products.) The people who live above the mine are all bought out except for one recalcitrant nut, who noticing oil leaking onto his property, decides this is part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and he tries to protest this fact to the government. Of course, people think he is just a nut, but his main problem is that he is protesting the wrong people.

When some of Cole Oil's people threaten to blab, Cole gets them killed. It is one such attempted murder that gets Porter involved.

The problem with this plot is that in 1981, the oil companies--as big and powerful as they are--don't and can't control the price of oil. The majors were able to control the price of oil and keep that price very stable through 1973. Their tool was the Texas Railroad Commission (TRC), which was a government agency that had the ability to set production levels in East Texas. The East Texas fields were so large that they could use its production level to set world prices. If demand increased, they turned on the spigot. If supply increased from elsewhere, they choked off the supply from East Texas. They were trying to avoid the chaos that followed the early days after Spindletop when overproduction brought the price of oil down to about nothing, while destroying reservoirs by drilling too many wells too close together.

The TRC seemed like a hell of a good idea to some Saudis and Venezuelans, so they founded OPEC. But OPEC was not able to act like the TRC until 1973. By that time, the U.S. had pretty much no spare capacity left, so the majors couldn't control the price of oil anymore. OPEC nations nationalized their resources. The Arab nations in particular used oil as a political weapon, but in general, with their ability to ramp up or scale down production at will, the OPEC nations were controlling the world price of oil in 1981.

In the 70s, there was plenty of resentment in the U.S. against the "seven sisters," as the majors were known. After all, they were riding high while the rest of the country suffered. But they were just lucky--they benefited from OPEC's stranglehold, even as the OPEC nations nationalized more and more of the world's reserves and industry.

In the novel, the suggestion is that there is huge overproduction, so Cole is deliberately hoarding oil to keep prices high. Something like that was indeed happening, but it wasn't Cole hoarding oil--it was OPEC deliberately not producing it. Additionally, even if Cole could affect the price of oil, why would it bother to produce it (which is expensive) and then reinject it into the ground? The much cheaper way to hoard oil is to simply not produce your reserves. Keep your reserves in the ground. But this is irrelevant--no major had enough reserves under their control to seriously affect the price of oil in 1981. And by 1985, as conservation efforts in the U.S. and Europe reduced demand while exploration brought new, non-OPEC oil on line, OPEC lost control of the price of oil. That was the year of the big oil crash.

I realize this is a really technical explanation for why Cole couldn't be committing the crime that is at the center of Black Water Rising. But it's public knowledge, and Attica Locke should have researched the world oil market better if she was going to write a novel that hinged on it.

The thing is, an oil company is a perfectly acceptable villain. You could have your fictional company commit any number of white-collar crimes that would be completely plausible, and which could then lead in true thriller fashion to more violent crimes. 1985 would be the perfect year for this, when the price of oil collapsed and oil companies were getting desperate. But Locke wanted something big--and ended up with something unbelievable.

(By the way, closing two refineries to manipulate the prices of refined products like gasoline wouldn't have worked in 1981. In the 1970s, the oil companies, flush with cash, massively overbuilt refining capacity in the U.S.)

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