In Canadian legal circles, John Ballem was recognized as a respected oil and gas lawyer who wrote crime novels in his spare time. But Ballem considered his writing much more than a sideline. “If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t be a contented person,” he said. He was as proud of his nomination for the 1997 Arthur Ellis Award for Excellence in Crime Writing as he was of his 2009 Distinguished Service Award for Legal Scholarship from the Canadian Bar Association.
He published his first novel, The Devil’s Lighter, in 1973 at age 48. Set in the Alberta oil patch, it took its colourful title from the expression used by rig workers to describe the phenomenon of a rogue well gushing out of control and then bursting into flames. The book sold so well that Ballem published several more oil patch thrillers in the same vein, all portraying what a Calgary Herald writer called “a world of wild parties, brawls, steamy sex, beautiful women, gritty roughnecks, and wheeler-dealers.”
Ballem knew the landscape well. As a Calgary corporate lawyer specializing in freehold energy leases, he acted for just about every big name in the oil patch, including Imperial Oil, Gulf Canada, Shell Oil, and a host of others. He long represented the Canadian Petroleum Association, the official voice of big oil, and he knew all the star players who shaped the oil patch following the 1947 Leduc discovery that marked the start of the modern industry. These included such larger-than-life characters as Frank McMahon of Pacific Petroleums, Bobby Brown of Home Oil, and “Smiling” Jack Gallagher of Dome Petroleum.
Ballem took up writing after his amateur career as a show jumper was ended by a fall. “I wasn’t bouncing so well,” he noted wryly. He produced a series of travel documentaries set in Africa, and soon decided he could write as well as the scriptwriters. That led him to writing fiction. “It became a sort of parlour game in Calgary to match my characters with real people,” he said.
By 1991, Ballem had published nine novels. Each sold more than 13,000 copies. One, The Judas Conspiracy, sold more than 50,000. His prodigious output prompted a series of questions from Calgary Herald books columnist Ken McGoogan, now a bestselling author in his own right. What made Ballem write, and write so hard, and produce so much, while still maintaining a busy career as a lawyer? “Obviously, you don’t NEED to write novels,” said McGoogan. Ballem begged to differ. “There’s pleasure in creating something that will last,” he said. McGoogan acknowledged that the lasting value of three Ballem novels in particular was in their depiction of the growing years of the Alberta oil industry “from the halcyon 1950s through the tumultuous 1980s.” Later combined with a fourth novel, they were reissued by Cormorant in 2005 as The Oil Patch Quartet.
Ballem lived in Calgary from 1954 onward. Before that, he served as a fighter pilot in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War, and lectured for two years at the University of British Columbia’s law school. Born in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, he inherited a love of literature and the arts from his father, a surgeon and classics scholar, and from his mother, a nurse, violinist and painter. He earned an arts degree from Dalhousie University in 1946, followed by law degrees from Dalhousie and Harvard. When he received an offer to join the Imperial Oil law department in 1952, Ballem jumped at the chance to “get out of academe and into the mainstream.” Two years later, Imperial transferred him to Calgary.
Ballem spent four years with Imperial and six with Westcoast Transmission before starting his own law firm in partnership with future Alberta premier Peter Lougheed. Eleven years later, in 1973, he published both the novel that launched his career as a fiction writer, and a legal text, The Oil and Gas Lease in Canada, that is now into its fourth edition and regarded as a classic of its kind. Widely used and cited, it serves as what a Herald business writer called “a guide through the intricate world of land deals that allow the petroleum industry to keep ticking.”
As well as writing novels and legal documents, Ballem published two volumes of poetry, several short stories, and numerous newspaper articles about his travels to such places as Dubai, Easter Island, the North Pole and the South Pole, which he reached in January 2009. His last article, for the CanWest newspapers, was about his 2009 journey to Antarctica to see where Sir Ernest Shackleton had embarked on his transcontinental expedition in 1914. “There were many epic voyages in the heroic age of polar exploration in the early 20th century,” wrote Ballem. “A few may have equalled, but none surpassed Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctica Expedition.”
Ballem died on January 9, 2010, three weeks before he would have celebrated his 85th birthday. At the time, according to The Globe and Mail, he was correcting the final proofs of his 14th novel, Murder on the Bow, due for publication this spring. His interests were “multitudinous,” his wife Grace told the Globe. “But his main love was the law.”