Death of a Rainmaker: A Dust Bowl Mystery
by Laurie Loewenstein

Kaylie Jones Books, 2018. ISBN 978-1-617-75665-8.
Reviewed by D Ferrara
Posted on 02/12/2019

Fiction: Mystery; Fiction: Historical; Fiction: Literary

There are thousands of mystery novels out there, with professional and amateur detectives. A quick look at (my favorite source for mystery information) reveals over five thousand authors and hundreds of categories. You can find mysteries featuring detectives who are social workers, photographers, divers, dancers and vintners, and which are set on every continent—including Antarctica.

What is it that sets Laurie Loewenstein's new novel, Death of a Rainmaker: A Dust Bowl Mystery, apart? Set in Oklahoma during the Depression, her story has a familiar framework—a stranger in town is murdered. Suspects abound, and the sheriff, with the unwelcome aid of his wife, sets out to find the killer.

Fair enough. Loewenstein, however, does not focus so much on "who dunnit" as on "who are these people and how did they come to this?" Sure, she peppers the book with clues, red herrings, twists and turns, but more importantly, she sets the stage expertly, then creates characters who resonate through the decades.

Her main character, Etha Jennings, is the wife of Sheriff Temple Jennings. They've been in Vermillion, Oklahoma, for fifteen years, yet Etha still feels like an outsider, especially because Temple is facing a nasty primary election fight. The roots she thought she had established feel increasingly fragile. When Roland Coombs, the rainmaker of the title, is murdered and suspicion lands on Carmine DiNapoli, a young man at the Civilian Conservation Corps—the "CCC"—Etha is convinced of the young man's innocence and is determined to prove it.

Etha is a complex character, stubborn, driven and sometimes blind to things around her, as well drawn as many other of Loewenstein's characters. From the adolescent ticket seller whose vanity leads to Carmine's arrest, to the sightless theatre owner who is blind to his woman friend's devotion to Eddie, a deputy struggling with his first law enforcement job—the book is full of characters who jump from the page, fully drawn, even if they are onstage for just a short time.

Looming over this small town and its citizens is the terrible specter of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. We all learned in history (and from Steinbeck) about the "Okies" and their troubles, but Loewenstein makes them as real as the troubles that face them.

The enormity of the disaster which has befallen the region has driven the town to a kind of madness. Their world is swept away with dust storms, their economic security gone as the Depression deepens. Farmers and townspeople grasp at straws, seduced, in part, by Temple's rival who promises the farmers better treatment, while he supports the banks who take their land and brags that his connections in the state house will rid the townspeople of the drifters who beg for food and work. The absurdity of these pledges is lost in the desperation of the times. They put their scarce money into the rainmaker's fireworks display, which is as useless as thinking a town sheriff can ease the Depression's grip.

In one telling scene, a stunned family watches as their farmstead is being auctioned by the bank, their possessions sold for pennies. Yet the wife secretly longs to be rid of the farm and out of the filthy swirl of Oklahoma. When their neighbors band together to save the farm, she is not relieved, but outraged, driving off with her children, splitting the family, probably forever. The farm is a bad investment, financially and emotionally, but her husband cannot let go and she cannot stay.

Another powerful moment involves a jackrabbit drive, in which thousands of animals are herded into a three-acre pen, then beaten with clubs, shovels and bats into livestock feed, as if the jackrabbits were the cause of their woes. It's a bloody, brutal scene which captures the impotent rage of farmers and townspeople. Loewenstein's description of the sea of fur, the frenzy of the attackers, and the pitiful cries of the animals sears the vision into the reader's mind. Anyone, it seems, can be whipped up enough to murder.

Full of fascinating side stories, the book is a bit too neat in tying up all the various plot threads, a common trait of mysteries. Still, the richness of the setting and characters make this a terrific read and a fine piece of historical fiction.

Laurie Loewenstein, a fifth-generation Midwesterner, is a descendent of farmers, butchers and salesmen. She grew up in central and western Ohio. She has a BA and MA in history. Loewenstein was a reporter, feature and obituary writer for several small daily newspapers. In her fifties, she returned to college for an MA in Creative Writing. Her first novel, Unmentionables (2014), was selected as a Midwest Connections pick and received a starred review from the Library Journal. Her current book, Death of a Rainmaker (2018), is the first of a mystery series set in the 1930s Dust Bowl.

Loewenstein is an instructor at Wilkes University's Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing where she co-teaches Research for Writers and coordinates the Writing Resource Center.

After living in eastern Pennsylvania for many years, Loewenstein now resides in Columbia, Maryland, with her husband.

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