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DEATH OF A RAINMAKER by Laurie Loewenstein: Book Review

In the 1930s, Oklahoma is a state suffering crop failures, mortgage defaults, and devastating dust storms that creep into every crevice of one’s home and body.  Nowhere is that more true than in the small town of Vermillion, where not a drop of rain has fallen in 240 days.

The townspeople are so desperate that they hire Roland Coombs, a self-professed expert, to bring rain to their parched farms.  Coombs says he learned his craft when he was in charge of munitions in the Army, and he has brought a truckload of TNT to start the process.

One of the few businesses remaining open in Vermillion is the Jewel Movie House, which charges a nickel admission.  Its owner, blind Chester Benton, needs every one of them to stave off bankruptcy.  Barely had the day’s early-bird matinee started, however, when the largest dust storm the town had ever seen barreled into Vermillion, covering stores, houses, and cars, forcing people to hunker down anywhere they could find shelter.

After the dust storm finally subsides the audience leaves the theater to return to their battered homes, and Chester begins the dispiriting task of sweeping up the dust that had accumulated on the seats, in the aisles, and in the cracks of the candy counter’s glass top.  But when he tries to open the fire door to clear that exit, it won’t budge.  Then, when the door finally opens a couple of inches, Chester leans down to measure the height of the dust; instead of dust, he touches cloth and then a man’s leg.  He feels the man’s face and tries to brush the dust away from his mouth and nose, but the man is definitely dead.

Temple Jennings is the Jackson county sheriff, so naturally he is called to investigate.  He and the medical examiner examine the corpse; the cause of death, which at first appears to be accidental suffocation from the dust storm, is now seen to be a murder, with the victim’s skull fractured by a heavy instrument.  And, the doctor says of the body, “It’s the rainmaker.”

Suspicion falls on one of the teenage boys who was seen to have been given a lift by Coombs after the dynamite explosion the previous night and to have had words with the rainmaker at the local bar.  Carmine DiNapoli is a recent arrival at the nearby CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp from Chicago, and he tries to flee when Temple arrives at the campground to question him.

Temple has another problem.  He is running for re-election, and the powerful and successful businessman Vince Doll is running against him.  Doll’s election posters have been plastered all over the county, and even people who supported Temple in the past seem to be leaning toward the challenger.  It’s as if they blame the current sheriff for all the ills that have befallen the town and think that a change in that office will bring prosperity back to Jackson county.

Death of a Rainmaker is a truly powerful book.  The author’s depiction of small-town life during the bleakest times in the state is incredibly realistic, and the characters and their problems are true-to-life.  Laurie Loewenstein has written what I hope will be just the beginning of the Dust Bowl series.

You can read more about Laurie Loewenstein at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

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