Death of a Rainmaker: A Dust Bowl Mystery

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By Laurie Loewenstein; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman

When Roland Coombs drives into Vermillion, OK, with crates of TNT in his truck, he gets a hero’s welcome.

He’s promised to use his World War I experience to trigger rain by sending dynamite into the sky. As far-fetched as it sounds, the Vermillion Commercial Club believes it’s a worthy investment. They are desperate. No rain means no farming or store-buying; no banking and no economy.

Vermillion and surrounding Jackson County are “in the bull’s-eye” of the Dust Bowl in August 1935.

“The last speck of loamy topsoil had blown across Oklahoma’s borders into Arkansas years back, leaving behind compacted dirt, its individual particles bound together so tightly that even a drop of water couldn’t wiggle through. But that made no matter because there was no water. Not an iota of rain had dribbled into the parched mouth of Jackson County for 240 days.”

For Jess Fuller, Coombs’ arrival comes too late. His farm is going on the auction block the next day. For the boys at the WPA camp outside of town, it doesn’t matter. They don’t have land. They barely had food until they joined the WPA.

The day after Coombs blasts his dynamite into the sky, an enormous duster blows through Vermillion. Those who’d bought tickets for the matinee at the Jewel Movie House are trapped inside without electricity until the wind dies down.

Owner Chester Benton gets the front entrance cleared so his patrons can leave. But when he tries to clear the alley fire exit, he finds the door blocked. He finally squeezes through the door and begins shoveling the sand away, only to find another obstacle.

The body of a man, mouth and lungs filled with sand, is lying outside the fire exit. Chester, who is blind, calls for the owner of the nearby diner to call Sheriff Temple Jennings.

Temple recognizes the dead man as Coombs. A skull-fracturing dent in the back of his head makes it clear this was homicide. Now it’s up to Temple to figure out who the killer was.

This is a time when the sheriff and his wife lived above the courthouse and across the hall from the town’s four jail cells. Temple’s wife, Etha, is responsible for cooking prisoners’ dinners. Female prisoners are kept in a cell in a barred corner of Etha’s kitchen.

There’s no fancy forensics or DNA to help solve this crime. No Internet or inter-agency, integrated data bases. Coombs’s murder has to be solved by hard work, keen observation, good questions, intuition and creative crime-solving.

This book is a joy to read. It’s steeped in an atmospheric, historic period.

Author Laurie Loewenstein writes vividly. Describing the Oklahoma landscape is, she writes “Brown bridal trains of dust billowed behind tractors. Curtains turned from white to strong coffee. Folks spit river mud after a duster. Washes of beige, cinnamon and umber bled into the blue sky, depending on which direction the wind blew. The people, the land, the buildings absorbed the dusty. All other colors leached away, while brown and its infinite variations remained.”

Temple and Etha are practical, community-spirited people. He grew up in Johnstown and survived the infamous 1889 Pennsylvania flood. They came to Vermillion just two months after their little boy Jack drowned in the Illinois River.

As a sheriff, Temple has experience and maturity. But in the face of the rainmaker’s killing, many think they know better how to find the culprit. With an election in two weeks, Temple is under pressure.

Temple and Etha are surrounded by a cast of marvelous characters: the prickly Chester Benton; cocky Roland Coombs; the beaten down Jess and Hazel Fuller, who after eight years hard labor must watch their farm and equipment go to auction; flinty Myra Mayo who runs the boarding house where Coombs stayed; and teenaged Maxine, so smitten by the handsome Deputy McChance that she doesn’t wear her glasses to identify a suspect and sets the investigation off on the wrong foot.

This story has plenty of suspense and many suspects. Seemingly unrelated events don’t connect until the surprising and touching ending.

DEATH OF A RAINMAKER, published in 2018 by Kaylie Jones Books, was followed by FUNERAL TRAIN in 2023.

If you are fascinated by stories set in the Depression, you might be interested in THE GOLDEN GATE.

The Author: Laurie Loewenstein

Laurie-Loewenstein-Dust-Bowl-MysteriesLaurie Loewenstein wrote UNMENTIONABLES, a historical novel, as well as two novels (so far) in the Dust Bowl mystery series.

She has worked as a reporter, feature and obituary writer for three daily newspapers as well as working in public relations. she currently teaches in the Wilkes University creative writing program.

She comes from a long line of Midwestern farmers and merchants.

She graduated from Colgate University and holds master’s degrees in history and in creative writing.

She currently lives in South Carolina.

#laurieloewenstein  #deathofarainmaker #funeraltrain #kayliejonesbooks


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