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FUNERAL TRAIN by Laurie Loewenstein: Book Review

The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl simultaneously hit the small town of Vermillion, Oklahoma, and the townspeople are clinging to their former lives by a thread.  Stores that had served the town for generations closed, crops were severely damaged by the weather, and the emotions of its citizens were frayed almost to the breaking point.

Then came a horrendous crash when a passenger train was only a few miles from Vermillion.  Sirens sounded, shrieks and moans filled the air, plumes of steam were everywhere.  Train cars overturned and the ground strewn with dead bodies and severed limbs.

Sheriff Temple Jennings rushes to the scene of the derailment, caught between containing the chaos and searching for his wife Etha, a passenger on the train.  She is badly hurt and rushed to the local hospital, which is overwhelmed by the number of casualties that are brought in.

The following morning reveals that the signaling device directing the train to the proper track had been tampered with, and Temple, his young deputy Ed McCance, and the railroad’s detective Claude Steele return to the scene of the wreck.  The section foreman tells the trio that every precaution is taken against vandalism and that the switch is protected by a padlocked chain.

However, that chain is missing, either because someone cut it off with a bolt cutter or else used the universal railroad key that is available only to the train crew and maintenance workers on the track.  Was the wreck caused by vandalism or revenge?

The novel features two outstanding subplots.  Etha Jennings is anticipating a visit from her niece and her husband Everett and their two sons for Christmas.  Etha loves her niece and nephews but doesn’t have much use for Everett, an out-of-work alcoholic who puts drinking ahead of the needs of his family.  Temple suggests that when Everett and his family return home he try to get back his former job, but Everett refuses belligerently. “I’m college-educated” is his mantra; apparently he would rather be unemployed than take a job he feels is beneath him.

There is also the mysterious Ruthie-Jo, a member of the community who is a virtual recluse.   Walking her dog the night of the accident, she sees a man running from the tracks, tossing an object into the underbrush.  Looking through the area, she finds a length of chain and a key that upon close examination proves to the be the property of the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe railroad.  But rather than return the key to the railroad or give it to the sheriff, she pockets it.  “You never knew when something might be of use,” she thinks.

Laurie Loewenstein is a masterful storyteller.  She interweaves the above plot lines, as well as two others, one involving the railroad detective Steele and the other a self-sufficient blind theater owner who unwillingly inherits Ruthie-Jo’s dog.  Her characters are realistic and well-drawn, and even the most unsympathetic are all-too-human.

You can read more about the author 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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

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