Shortlisted for the 2022 Walter Scott Prize

When oil is discovered on the surface of a failing cocoa estate in Trinidad, there is the inevitable rush to land a contract to sink some wells. The farmer, Sonny Chatterjee, is not inclined to destroy his beloved trees. However, circumstances conspire against him, and eventually he signs a 12-month contract with Eddie Wade, an experienced oilman, who has just set up his own company with the financial backing of Tito Fernandez. Chatterjee won’t deal with the conglomerate APEX because with them he would have no share in the profits.

Eddie, albeit operating on a shoestring, knows what he is doing, and when the black gold begins to flow, so do the profits. A friendship between Eddie and Tito develops, bringing Eddie into the orbit of with Tito’s beautiful wife, Ada. Cue a the dangerous current that could jeopardise everything.

In parallel, nervousness develops on the oil field. The APEX manager, Charles Macleod, starts drilling on land bordering the Chatterjee estate. When his men fell a cedar tree, regarded as sacred by the local population, this is interpreted as an omen of disaster. Not long after an accident on the APEX site occurs, which proves to be a foreshadow of the greater tragedy to follow.

As Fortune is based on true events (the Dome fire of 1928, in which 17 people lost their lives) the pull towards a known future is inexorable. Smyth builds up the sense of dread and unavoidable doom by showing the risks Eddie takes in both his personal and business lives. His luck must run out sometime, mustn’t it? I was constantly trying to identify just what would be the cause of his undoing. There’s the story of the parrot who revealed an affair by squawking the name of the mistress. Would that be the role of the flashy white Mercedes Eddie buys? It’s a tad indiscreet for a man conducting an affair with the wife of his business partner and friend on a small island. Well, I was right about the role of the car … but it played out in a wholly unexpected way.

If you’ll forgive the pun, Fortune is very rich in detail: the mechanics of oil-drilling in 1920’s Trinidad, the bitter rivalry between Eddie Wade and Charles Macleod, the contrast between the lives of men and their unhappy wives (says Ada “Sometimes I think I missed my whole life”), more contrasts between the lives of the entrepreneurs and their Trinidadian labour, landscape and climate, lush, exotic, dangerous, nightmarish particularly for the Scottish Macleods. What more does one expect from a historical novel? Resonance with the modern age? Think about oil supply and environmental destruction, and you don’t have to drill deep to find that in plentiful supply also.