Driving up north from Florida, I listened to Clive Cussler’s latest book. As usual, it was a fast paced, exciting story designed to keep the reader involved even when the characters were in the most implausible situations. The back story begins at the turn of the 20th century, but most of the action takes place in 1905. The plot is centered around an unknown assassin suspected of killing off men standing in the way of Standard Oil’s rise to power.
John D. Rockefeller is the oil and railroad baron controlling the competition by using hardball methods. He does not have a stellar reputation and is feared and disliked by the small oil men who are hoping to build a pipe line to transfer their own product to market. His tactics interfere with and sharply curtail the success of their efforts, and they are bitter. When the competition begins dying mysteriously, Isaac Bell, a private detective of the Van Dorn Agency, becomes involved. He is looking for corporate misconduct on the part of Rockefeller and Standard Oil and a possible murder suspect!
Years earlier, two partners had basically been cheated out of their investments by Rockefeller’s heavy hand. One, Bill Matters, joined forces with J.D. Rockefeller and the other, Spike Hopewell, set off on his own absolutely resenting his partner as a traitor. Matters grew rich as he rose through Standard Oil’s rank, but secretly he plotted his revenge against the man who stole everything from him. He had two daughters. Both of the young women were independent; one, Edna, is a journalist and the other, Nellie, currently tools around in a hot air balloon as she supports the woman’s suffragist movement, but she had dabbled in many other things, including acting. Both young women were enamored with the Private Detective, and Bell is actually smitten by both of them, as well, unable to make a choice. He courted both as he searched for clues in the corporate maze, looking for proof that the recent deaths of several of the men opposing Rockefeller’s plans were not due to natural causes, accidents or suicide, but rather due to murder. He believed that there was an assassin in the wings. He was hoping to discover the underhanded tactics he suspected Rockefeller of using in order to stifle competition.
As the mystery unfolded, there was romance in the air as well as rising tension. There was also a humorous, light touch which made the book easy to read, however, for this reader, the plot sometimes veered into the realm of fantasy. When a hot air balloon goes wild and Bell climbs the ropes high above the earth to cut holes in the fabric and then survives the fall to earth miraculously, it stretched the imagination a bit too far. There were other moments like that, but since they were all woven into the story, holding the reader’s attention awaiting the final outcome, it seemed to work. It would seem that Bell, like a cat, had multiple lives and a great deal of convenient, lucky breaks.
The picture of J. D. Rockefeller was that of a strong man with a cold heart, a man who had a deep love for his business and a respect for industriousness, but a man who was without much of a sense of humor or empathy for others. The story detailed the rough environment in which the industry grew as well as the hardness and dedication of the men involved in order for them to even begin to succeed and compete with the heavy hand of J. D. Rockefeller. The competition was ruthless and the consequences were often callous and violent.
It was a good book to listen to for a road trip as it held my attention while it didn’t tax my brain. The author researched the history of the times well, knew about the industry and the murder weapons, and understood the mindset of both the prominent and the struggling oilmen. He provided detailed explanations of guns, hot air balloons, the women’s suffrage movement, and some world events, as he described the nature of the development of the oil industry and pipe lines worldwide. The book is the eighth in a series about Isaac Bell. There may be more to come.