Until the recent drop in oil prices, the most exciting thing going on in the oil exploration business was the huge increase in production from places where, just a few years earlier, it had been too expensive even to drill. But almost overnight, because of a perfect storm combining high oil prices and innovative drilling techniques, much of the state of North Dakota found itself experiencing something akin to the mid-nineteenth century California gold rush days. Oil patch workers by the thousands moved to North Dakota. The good news was that wages skyrocketed; jobs were so plentiful that oil companies were desperate to fill them; and some local landowners began to experience wealth beyond their wildest dreams. The bad news was that that the cost of living in North Dakota also skyrocketed; prostitution increased dramatically; and drug trafficking became a major problem. In some ways, it was the Wild West all over again.
This is the setting for Sophie Littlefield’s The Missing Place, a novel in which two young men from very different backgrounds come to North Dakota to get a piece of the action. Both men are looking for alternatives to college, and they figure that the North Dakota oil patch offers the best chance for them to put some real money into their pockets. And, right up until the day they both disappeared, that’s what happened. Now their mothers have come to Lawton, North Dakota, to find their sons.
Until they meet in North Dakota, neither woman has any idea that the other exists. One is a working class woman from California; the other the pampered wife of a prominent Boston attorney. The only thing the women have in common is that their sons disappeared on the same day and have not been seen since. It is soon obvious that the women will never be friends, but it is equally obvious to them that no one, neither the oil company employing their sons, nor the local police, is looking for their boys. If they are to be found, their mothers will have to do it themselves - and it will take both women working together to get the job done.
Throw into the mix an oil company desperate to hide its high rate of injuries and deaths on the job, a police department that is not at all interested in investigating the disappearance of the men, and a local Indian tribe with an ax to grind of its own, and you have the makings of a nicely plotted crime thriller. And that is exactly what the first eighty percent or so of The Missing Place is. The problem with the book is that it does not end with its dramatic, tension-filled climax. Instead, it continues on until all the personal conflicts between its characters have been resolved. This effectively takes all the wind out of the book’s sails and it seems to crawl to its final destination.
I do recommend the book to those curious about what it is like to work outdoors in North Dakota in the dead of that state’s harsh winters. The overall atmosphere of The Missing Place, when combined with the often thrilling search for two young men in way over their heads, makes for exciting reading. I only wish the author had stopped while she was ahead.