Alphabet in crime fiction: Last Light by Alex Scarrow

S For my contribution to the letter S, I have written a review of the book Last Light by Alex Scarrow.

Last Light is a very exciting thriller based on the premise that the world’s oil supplies run out. Andy Sutherland, a consultant geologist originally from New Zealand, is commissioned to write a secret report about the vulnerable parts of the supply chain. While delivering this report, his nine-year-old daughter Leona accidentally sees some of the people who commissioned it.

Ten years later, Andy’s marriage is essentially over. Ever since writing the report he has been convinced that energy supplies must soon collapse, and has tried to persuade his wife Jenny to move to the country, become self-sufficient and prepare for the worst. Eventually she has had enough of his paranoia and, soon after Leona goes to university and the younger child, Jacob, departs for prep school (on the proceeds of Andy’s fee for writing the report), the couple decide to split. Andy goes to Iraq on a consulting project and Jenny goes to Manchester by train for a job interview which, she hopes, will be the start of a new life for her and her son.

That day, however, massive explosions occur at the Holy Mosque in Mecca and in other places of worship in Saudi Arabia. Within hours, a religious civil war has broken out.  Crippling explosions at oil refineries and pipelines in Georgia, the Gulf and Venezuela soon follow. In the UK, the Prime Minister and his immediate advisors assess the situation and realise that the country has only about two weeks’ oil reserves left. They decide to recall all the military from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere to maintain order, and close down all the train and air services. Major roads are closed. Rapidly, the country degenerates into chaos and anarchy as electricity fails and food supplies run out.

The novel focuses on the efforts of the fractured family to reunite at their house in Shepherd’s Bush in west London. Each member of the family faces almost insurmountable dangers in attempting their journey. Andy is in a hostile country with a small unit of British soldiers, trying to make their way through dangerous terrain to any friendly base. As Andy picks up fragments of what is going on in the world from half-heard radio reports and phone conversations snatched when the signal is good enough and while he still has a battery, he realises that the events he Last light outlined in his report are really happening.  Jenny is stuck in Manchester with no means of transport, surrounded by increasingly hungry and violent people. Leona is in the most danger of all the family, although she does not realise it, because of what she witnessed as a child. And Jacob isn’t allowed to leave his school without signed permission from his parents (a nice touch). The novel switches perspective between Andy, Jenny and Leona as they struggle towards safety, each of them increasingly aware that their destination may be far from being the refuge that they hope for.

Last Light is a breathlessly exciting novel told at an incredibly fast pace. The author conveys with great believability the speed with which British society breaks down in the face of this disaster. No stiff upper lip or World War Two spirit here. The characters of the Sutherland family and the people they meet over the time of the novel are extremely well depicted, and the reader is constantly urging them on in their seemingly impossible task of meeting each other again. However, the novel is far less successful as a “global conspiracy” thriller. The hired assassin elements are clichéd, and the explanation for who is behind the report Andy wrote, and why, seems almost to come from a different book altogether. Even so, I highly recommend this nailbitingly exciting novel.

Last Light was published in 2007, and is explicitly a homage to 9/11 and 7/7, as well as considering what might have happened had SARS or avian flu epidemics actually happened on the extreme scale of the predictions. The book was published before the global financial crisis took over the headlines, and it would have been very interesting to see how the author would have incorporated that into his plot had he written it a year or so later.

There is a fascinating afterword to the novel by the author, about how and why he came to write the book. “It’s not really a book about Peak Oil – that was merely the starting point for me. No, it’s a book about how lazy and vulnerable we’ve allowed ourselves to become. How reliant on the system we are.  How little responsibility we are prepared to take for our actions, for ourselves, for our children.  …..And here we are, the ghastly events of 7/7; the increasing prevalence of gang-related gun crime in London; legions of disaffected kids packing blades to go to school; a media that night and day pumps out the message – screw everyone else, just get what’s yours; reality TV that celebrates effortless transitory fame over something as old-fashioned as ‘achievement’; corporations that rip of their employees’ pension funds; politicians of all flavours putting themselves and their benefits first. All these things, I suspect, are the visible hairline cracks of our broken society that hint at the deeper, very dangerous, fault lines beneath. And all it’ll take is some event, some catalyst, for the whole thing to come tumbling down.”

The author also recommends a website, Life after the oil crash , for those interested in knowing more about 'Peak Oil' and what might lead to the kind of crisis described in Last Light.

I thank Material Witness for recommending this novel to me.

Alex Scarrow's blog

Alex Scarrow's website (with brother Simon)

Crime Fiction alphabet series at Petrona.

Mysteries in Paradise, home of the crime fiction alphabet. Visit this link if you would like to participate.