Vol. 12, No. 33 Week of August 19, 2007
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Herrera: Starks’ novel keeps you guessing

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Roger C. Herrera

For Petroleum News

I enjoyed this book. It is a good, exciting read that should make everyone rethink their blind acceptance of their perceived right to cheap, plentiful gasoline and other petroleum products. But while the morals of this story are worthy of serious thought, it should not be read for its philosophical insights, important though those are, rather as a gripping yarn of industrial espionage that keeps the reader guessing until the very end.

One of the medium-sized refineries, located on the Houston ship canal, is not achieving its expected efficiency of output. The new vice president of refining, Lynn Dayton, who is the heroine of the story, is determined to solve the technical problems despite the gender prejudices that are endemic amongst the refinery management and work force. She is an interesting character and her stability is seriously tested after an H2S leak kills four of the refinery workers.

For those of us who are unaware of the dangerous nature of hydrogen sulfide with its familiar rotten egg smell, read this book. It is very nasty stuff and every petroleum refinery in this land produces it. However, its formation is but a small step in the complicated process that extracts useable products from crude oil. Much of the story revolves around the potential for deliberately disrupting the high temperatures and pressures that are part and parcel of the refining process. We occasionally read, in real life, of refinery accidents that kill many people, so when one adds the approach of a tropical hurricane across the Gulf of Mexico, plus deliberate acts of sabotage, the refining process becomes very dangerous indeed.

Masterful tale of how a refinery ticks

The author is masterful at detailing the way a refinery ticks without boring the reader or introducing too much technical jargon. And while the retorting of crude oil is part of the story, the characters and their human relationships are what make this book so readable and interesting.

Oil industry readers will relate to some of the red-necked attitudes of the refinery staff to the lady VP. They will also understand the inane long hours and hard work that is expected of everyone involved. They might sympathize with the impossibility of sane family relationships when work problems become overwhelming, but they will appreciate the dedication of Lynn Dayton who leads by example and could be anybody’s favorite boss.

Several of the characters in this novel are French, including the evil mastermind who is trying to manipulate the world supply of gasoline. While his role in the story is sometimes less than convincing, nevertheless the author has a startling insight into the nature of the French psyche. The book is almost worth reading just to learn what French people don’t like about Americans and why. Or, more importantly, how Americans should behave in France.

The Pythagoras part of the conspiracy that features in the title seemed somewhat redundant and it was not one of the details that added much interest to a tale that was otherwise very satisfying and rather sobering. Perhaps it will feature in follow-up novels?

By the way, the hydrogen sulfide leaks were not an accident and there are enough additional murders in the refinery to keep the most avid who-done-it fans satisfied. The rest of us should not miss the message that the author, Ms. L.A. Starks, salts in the plot — for example, the vulnerability of our refineries, the double-edged sword that gasoline taxes often represent and the outstanding capability of women executives. Needless to say, Ms. Starks has had a career in the oil industry and has a degree in chemical engineering and an MBA in finance. This is an excellent first novel.

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