No movie of 2007 sounded more promising than "There Will Be Blood," which stars the titanic Daniel Day-Lewis in a loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair's 1927 roman a clef novel about prospector Edward L. Doheny, Oil!
In 1893, Doheny sank the first oil well in Los Angeles, digging 155 feet down by hand. His oil discoveries all over California and Mexico (where he employed a private army of 6,000), enabled him to give his son the most imposing house in California south of William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon, Greystone, a 55-room Beverly Hills mansion with a private bowling alley (where the last scene of "There Will Be Blood" was filmed).
During the Harding Administration, however, Doheny, a Democrat (but an open-minded one), became entangled in the Teapot Dome scandal. After receiving a no-bid contract to drill on Navy lands, he sent his son with a "loan" of $100,000 in cash to Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall.
Outraged, the muckraking socialist Sinclair wrote a verbose but well-researched novel about oil, "the black and cruel demon," leavened with some surprisingly affectionate depictions of the old rascal. If Sinclair had waited two more years, though, he would have had the perfect climax. In 1929, having been acquitted of conspiracy, Doheny was still facing trial on bribing Fall, when his son and his son's secretary, both potential witnesses, died at Greystone in a murder-suicide. Who had murdered whom? The police quickly blamed the underling and the newspapers went along.
The Doheny affair was not forgotten, however, by a Los Angeles oil industry executive named Raymond Chandler. When he drank himself out of a job in 1932, Chandler tried writing detective fiction. The ambiguous Greystone killings became the archetype for Philip Marlowe's cases, with Doheny Sr. perhaps the inspiration for the dying General Sternwood who hires Marlowe in The Big Sleep.