For a lesson in how to get a story up and running quickly, look no further than Crude Carrier, by the inimitable Rex Burns. The father-and-daughter detective team of James Raiford and Julie Campbell, a.k.a. The Touchstone Agency, are thrown into the deep end of a case from the opening page. With Burns’ no-nonsense prose churning the waters, the story launches quickly from Denver to far across the globe.
Crude Carrier comes smack on the heels of last year’s Body Slam, also featuring the Touchstone Agency crew and also featuring some deft undercover work. I can’t imagine more different undercover assignments than the world of professional wrestling and the world of international oil transport on the high seas.
But Raiford pulls it off—and so does Burns.
A review follows. First, Rex Burns was kind enough to answer some questions about Crude Carrier, particularly the effort that went into a story that is rich in detail about life on the high seas. If you’re a fan of the “Mighty Ships” show on the Smithsonian (it’s really cool), then Crude Carrier is the perfect mystery for you.
Question: How did you get the idea for Crude Carrier?
Rex Burns: The antennae are always out for story ideas, and this one had the advantage of involving a great deal of money (at $100 a barrel) plus the puzzle of how to steal it. An added attraction was the oil tanker setting, about which I knew very little but wanted to know more. “Write what you know” is good advice if you know something interesting, but I prefer “write what you want to know” better.
Question: How did you go about the research? Readers are eager to know how much time you spent and how you approached the whole process.
Rex Burns: This book was several years in the making, much of the time devoted to research. The shipboard setting and the London setting both required traveling and asking questions from people willing to talk about what they do. I had a teaching year in England and that provided the opportunity to identify potential sources of information and the time to make several trips from Canterbury to London to interview them. The shipping office described in the novel takes elements from a couple of offices I visited, though the fictional characters are determined by the needs of the plot rather than being portraits of actual people. Julie’s stroll through the grounds of London University go back three decades to my own attendance there. Fortunately, many parts of the London cityscape such as Russell Square and the Tower district stand firm against rapid change.
Question: Have you always been fascinated by big ships, or tankers?
Rex Burns: By ships large and small, yes. I come from a Navy family and some of my earliest childhood memories are fragments of ocean trips to the orient before Pearl Harbor. Following WWII, the Navy had many ships host civilians, Navy dependents, and groups such as Boy Scout troops, and I had tours aboard air craft carriers out of Pensacola Bay and out of Coronado, CA. My later month-long sojourn aboard the troop transport “Daniel I. Sultan” from San Diego (Camp Pendleton) to Okinawa was significant, too; as I was mess officer on that voyage I was able to nose around and see aspects of the ship’s operations and aspects of the personnel organization and division of labor that most passengers don’t see. I especially like destroyers—my Dad was a “tin can sailor,” but I do find submarines claustrophobic—though very interesting. I still enjoy sea travel, including the twelve minute ride between Coronado and San Diego on the old Coronado ferry (which is now for foot traffic only).
Rex Burns: There was nothing really hard about any of that—I found it interesting, so it was pleasurable to research. A lot of the basic issues were done with interviews as mentioned above, but most of the research of fine detail—balancing the load, types of oil, handling dangerous cargo—was done on the computer. I gained familiarity with the niceties of loading a vessel when, while stationed on Okinawa, I was appointed the embarkation officer for a tank battalion and responsible for ship loading when we boarded LST’s for transport to Numazu, Japan. I was able to recall and transfer the emotion of that job to the lading of the Aurora Victorious. As for the marine insurance, what is necessary for verisimilitude is to know what you want to find out and to find and use the keywords that unlock a myriad of sites providing pertinent facts. The hardest part of research for this book as for most of my yarns is to stop doing research—then to pare down what factual material goes into the book so it retains a sense of depth but does not confuse or bore the reader. There’s a balance between telling what’s necessary and effective, and burdening the reader with so much detail that the tale’s impetus is lost. Of course that balance varies with each reader, and I’ve had some who enjoyed learning about oil tankers and others who complained about “all that oil-stuff.” I would rather try to please the former reader than the latter.
Question: And how about the electronics details around the boat?
Rex Burns: Again, research. I made the Aurora Victorious an old vessel not only for the plot but also because my own knowledge of electronics (and single side band radios) is very limited. I really don’t know if Raiford’s use of the radio would work—but that’s OK, because he didn’t either. We’re both very happy that it did. A lot of the communications gear aboard the Aurora, being so old, comes from the communications equipment I learned to use when I served in a tank battalion, and—with some admittedly shallow reading up on contemporary satellite usage—I could adapt it to the Aurora’s ancient electronics.
Question: Without giving anything away, have the book’s nefarious deeds happened?
Rex Burns: I do not know if this plot has occurred in real life, but I greatly appreciate your implication that it seems as if it could. My guess is that if it hasn’t, it could. There seems to be some kind of prescience afloat which writers sense. A couple of my Gabe Wager novels preceded reality—one, The Leaning Land, had a police officer ambushed near the Four-Corners area of the Navaho nation. A couple months after it was published, a police officer was killed near the same Four Corners area in the same way. Another tale, Endangered Species, had a suicide bomber planning to crash an air plane into one of the critical buildings on the Rocky Flats atomic trigger manufacturing site. That was about a year before 9/11. And in Parts Unknown (1991), body organs were being stolen from undocumented victims and sold to less-than-honest doctors for a nice profit. So I can’t say that this book’s plot won’t thicken into reality.
Question: You allude to the shrinking size of the crew on these ocean-going tankers. How safe is it out there?
Rex Burns: One of my characters interviewed by Julie lists several major accidents involving oil tankers. The list is true (and by no means exhaustive). There have been more accidents since the Crude Carrier came out last year. I did read not too long ago that one company is designing robotic freighters that will be so automated that crews will not be needed. I don’t know if humans will be placed aboard for supervision of the machines or not, but the “S.S. Keymatic” is on the drawing boards now. The robot ships may or may not be safer than those guided by fallible humans. My guess is that if skeleton crews are mandated as back-up for the robots, the sea-faring ability of the humans will atrophy, and their primary function will be to radio for help.
Question: Raiford notes the “rigid chain of command” from the captain on down the line. True?
Rex Burns: The merchant marine is a quasi-military structure, and by law the captain of a vessel is the ultimate authority when the sea-bound ship drops its pilot. The Ship’s Articles that each crewmember signs designates his or her place in the pecking order.
Question: What’s next for the Touchstone Agency?
Rex Burns: I’m not sure, but I’m looking for something that interests me.
There is something unmistakable about the Rex Burns style. It’s straight-ahead. It’s meaty knuckles of prose, in your face. Here’s the story and here’s more story and we’re not going to spend a lot of time chewing the fat, okay? Try and keep up. Window dressing is for retail, padding is for your mattress, fluff is worthless since it doesn’t weigh anything. The style reeks of confidence of a pure storyteller focused on the events, not the clever way he is going to tell it. Boom, like that.
Crude Carrier gets up and running like a water skier launching from a dock, but this case the topic is ocean-going oil tankers and a mysterious death. The case arrives at the landlocked, Denver-based Touchstone Agency through letters delivered by the owners of the Aurora Victorious to the parents of Third Officer Harold Rossi, who died at sea with precious little explanation to go with it. Efforts by the parents to find out more have borne no new details. Soon, James Raiford and Julie Campbell—a.k.a. The Touchstone Agency—are making telephone calls via satellite to the ship itself. The detectives get the brush-off but soon realize that the owners of the ship may have established a “pattern of negligence” within its fleet and the insurance company is eager to know what Touchstone has learned, if anything.
Before the page count reaches double digits, the body count jumps from one to two (I don’t think that’s a big spoiler) and soon James Raiford is off to insert himself into the military-like subculture of the Aurora’s crew (he works his way on board as an electronics officer) and Julie heads to London to sniff around the company’s shady past.
Raiford isn’t all brawn and brute. His relationship with Julie gives him some soft edges and we see Raiford’s humanity as he makes his way from the lower decks to the upper echelon of the Aurora’s hierarchy. But Raiford has a temper—and reason to have one—and he attacks the “rigid chain of command” in such a way that his work to find out what happened to Rossi is hampered. In fact, he manages to dig himself a few holes before battling his way back. Alone never felt so utterly alone on this remote patch of ocean.
The ship details are fascinating—but not overdone. If didn’t know about Plimsoll lines, you will soon. Burns writes convincingly about all this stuff—quite a feat. You’ll grow a pair of sea legs reading in your arm chair.
Resolving the case of the dead Third Officer requires knowing when to ask the right questions—and who should hear them. Thousands of miles away in London, Julie encounters her own brand of danger and inadvertently puts her father squarely in the crosshairs of trouble.
Bow to stern and port to port, Crude Carrier is a solid, engaging trip.