By Laurie Loewenstein; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman
When Roland Coombs drives into Vermillion, OK, with crates of TNT and blasting powder in the back of his open truck, he gets a hero’s welcome.
He’s promised to use his experience in World War I to trigger rain by sending shells full of dynamite up into the sky. As far-fetched as it sounds, the Vermillion Commercial Club believes it’s a worthy investment. They are desperate. Without rain, there will be no farming, 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’ arrive 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 drives through Vermillion and the surrounding area. The 22 people who had bought tickets for the matinee at the Jewel Movie House are trapped inside without electricity until the wind subsides. Owner Chester Benton gets the front entrance cleared so people can go home. But when he tries to go out the fire exit to clear that to the alley, he finds the door blocked. When he finally can squeeze through the door and begins shoveling the sand away, he finds his progress blocked.
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.
The skull-fracturing dent in the back of Coombs’ head makes it clear that this was a homicide. It’s up to Temple to figure out who the killer was.
This is a period in history 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 forensic or DNA to help solve this crime. No Internet or inter-agency, integrated data bases. The county medical examiner is Wilburn Hinchie, MD, 72, and the town’s general practitioner. Temple’s deputy is Ed McCance, once a tough from the streets of Chicago, then a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). He was living at the CCC camp outside Vermillion when Temple was granted funding to hire a deputy and was among the first to apply.
This is a homicide solved by hard work, keen observation, good questions, intuition and creative crime-solving.
This book is a joy to read on so many levels. It’s steeped in an atmospheric historic period. Author Laurie Loewenstein writes vividly. Describing how monochromatic brown 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. Temple 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.
Temple has experience and maturity. But in the face of the rainmaker’s killing, plenty of people think they know better than he how to find the culprit. With an election coming up in two weeks, Temple is facing a high pressure situation.
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 up for a bank 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.
The Author: Laurie Loewenstein
Laurie 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.
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