Oil and Water is described as “an environmental murder mystery,” but there is far more to this book than murder and mystery.
Indeed, Oil and Water, Pam Lazos first novel, is close to an epic. It delves into the author’s deep concern with the state of the planet’s environment. An environmental lawyer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Lazos demonstrates a broad knowledge of the petroleum industry, water degradation from leaching landfills and oil spills, the science of cleaning the water and waterfowl severely damaged by oil spills, oil economics, deep-sea drilling, etc.
The breadth of her knowledge is impressive and the reader will learn quite a bit, which could be more than a murder mystery reader wants to learn. Yet, the narrative is often compelling, and Lazos has put some flesh and bone on most of her main characters, even if they do tend to lecture.
The most interesting character is also the chief protagonist, Gil, a 10-year-old prodigy who exists on such a high spiritual plain that he is prescient. Gil is so fascinating a character that he and his dog Max deserve their own novel. There is much Lazos could do with Gil. Perhaps a boy detective and his dog?
In Oil for Water, Lazos already does much with him and the rest of his family – his brothers Avery and Robbie, his sister, Kori, his parents, Martin and Ruth. The struggles and peculiarities of Gil and his family keep the pages turning because they are familiar; their desperate emotional and economic troubles are familiar territory. The trials and tribulations of the Tirabi family is the core of this book, making the murder and mystery secondary. I wanted to know even more about them, and where they are headed in the future.
The “McGuffin,” as director Alfred Hitchcock called the device or thing in which a plot revolves, is a technology that promises to solve the world’s energy needs and pollution problems that Gil’s father invented. Unseen forces are trying to steal the invention, which apparently is similar to an actual technology still being perfected.
Lazos does an impressive job explaining the science to the layperson – I learned a few things about water purity and oil cleanups. She writes especially well in describing her characters and using them to set the chapter moods; the dialogue is often crisp and moves the story forward. The suspense is doled out rather evenly.
The book, though, is sprawling at times, the writing sometime too descriptive. It seems Lazos could write several books on some of the plot twists as well as some of the book’s themes.
It’s well worth a dive into Oil and Water, and it was particularly satisfying to follow the exploits of Gil and Max.