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By Helen Knode

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
Trade paperback ($24.00)

ISBN-13: 978-0-15-100429-4

Reviewed by Sam Waas

Oil rigs are among the most dangerous places to work. Despite strict safety regulations and an often-willing management to provide a good environment, the job has inherent hazards. Murder, however, is not usually on the OSHA list.

Ann Whitehead finds herself roughnecking on a wildcat rig in the California oil fields. Wildcats are oil drilling rigs backed by independent investors rather than large firms. The work there is grueling, the hours long, and the number of women on these rigs next to zero. Ann is however looking for a challenge and change of pace, and cajoles an old family friend for the job.

She begins work at the lowest rung in rig hierarchy, a "worm." Worms are rarely allowed to perform actual drilling, and are instead relegated to endless cleaning and scrubbing of the huge, dirty, and oily rig hardware and frame. But Ann works hard, keeps her head down, and earns grudging respect from her rigmates.

During a particularly foggy shift, a newcomer roughneck is found dead on the rig floor, apparently struck by a falling hammer. Although local police declare the death accidental, Ann suspects foul play and asks her boyfriend, LAPD Detective Doug Lockwood, for help. They begin a covert investigation and several potential suspects are revealed. Ann continues to work on the rig in the meanwhile, and comes under attack herself.

WILDCAT PLAY is exceptionally well written and is very literate. Pacing is good and the mystery unfolds nicely. Knode is a fine author and has created an excellent narrative.

The novel does have its problems, however. Drilling rigs are complex assemblies with hundreds of intricate, specifically designed functions. The author includes many of these in her narrative but with little explanation. Someone familiar with oil drilling, such as myself, knows what a drawworks, mud pit, doghouse, and skylift are, but most people don't.

Whenever an author uses a setting unfamiliar to most readers, whether it be a sailing ship or starship, there is usually a novice character being taught the ropes by a pro, and those lessons serve to provide the reader with sufficient knowledge to understand the surroundings. In this novel, however, the protagonist, Ann Whitehead, already knows her way around and therefore we pick up necessary details sparingly, at the author's seeming whim. When action swirls around the rig, the reader may often be so confused about the description of the locales that threads of the plot are lost in the meantime. If a beginner's introduction isn't in the narrative proper, a glossary might help, and this isn't a specious recommendation.

The rig workers are also introduced as a group and their personalities aren't defined discretely enough to allow the reader to immediately recognize who is whom. This works its way out eventually as we become more familiar with the characters but it's a bit confusing at first.

These are not major sticking points. WILDCAT PLAY is an engaging, clever, and entertaining read.

This title is scheduled for release April 24, 2012. It may currently be pre-ordered from online book sources.

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