Finalist for the 2019 Oklahoma Book Awards, Fiction
"The murder investigation allows Loewenstein to probe into the lives of proud people who would never expose their troubles to strangers. People like John Hodge, the town's most respected lawyer, who knocks his wife around, and kindhearted Etha Jennings, who surreptitiously delivers home-cooked meals to the hobo camp outside town because one of the young Civilian Conservation Corps workers reminds her of her dead son. Loewenstein's sensitive treatment of these dark days in the Dust Bowl era offers little humor but a whole lot of compassion."
--New York Times Book Review
"This striking historical mystery...is brooding and gritty and graced with authenticity."
--NPR, A Best Book of 2018
"The Depression and a 240-day-long dry spell drive the desperate townspeople of Vermillion, OK, to hire a rainmaker, but he's murdered, leaving sheriff Temple Jennings to investigate. Loewenstein's terrific historical mystery wears its history lightly and its humanity beautifully. The first in a series, it's a realistic, expertly drawn novel with characters you'll come to love."
--Library Journal, A Best Book of 2018
"The plot is compelling, the character development effective and the setting carefully and accurately designed...I have lived in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma; I know about wind and dust...Combining a well created plot with an accurate, albeit imagined, setting and characters that 'speak' clearly off of the page make Death of a Rainmaker a pleasant adventure in reading."
"Set in an Oklahoma small town during the Great Depression, this launch of a promising new series is as vivid as the stark photographs of Dorothea Lange."
--South Florida, One of Oline Cogdill's Best Mystery Novels of 2018
"After a visiting con artist is murdered during a dust storm, a small-town sheriff and his wife pursue justice in 1930s Oklahoma. A vivid evocation of life during the Dust Bowl; you might need a glass of water at hand while reading Loewenstein's novel."
--Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Editor's Pick
"Laurie Loewenstein's new mystery novel...expertly evokes the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression...Loewenstein's novel sometimes reads like a combination of a Western and a mystery. But that genre mishmash works."
--Washington City Paper
"The plot is solid in Death of a Rainmaker, but what makes Loewenstein's novel so outstanding is the cast of characters she has assembled...Death of a Rainmaker is a suburb book, one that sets the reader right down amid some of the hardest times our country has faced, and lets us feel those hopeful farmers' despair as they witness their dreams turning to dust."
--Mystery Scene Magazine
When a rainmaker is bludgeoned to death in the pitch-blackness of a colossal dust storm, small-town sheriff Temple Jennings shoulders yet another burden in the hard times of the 1930s Dust Bowl. The killing only magnifies Temple's ongoing troubles: a formidable opponent in the upcoming election, the repugnant burden of enforcing farm foreclosures, and his wife's lingering grief over the loss of their eight-year-old son.
As the sheriff and his young deputy investigate the murder, their suspicions focus on a teenager, Carmine, serving with the Civilian Conservation Corps. The deputy, himself a former CCCer, struggles with remaining loyal to the corps while pursuing his own aspirations as a lawman.
When the investigation closes in on Carmine, Temple's wife, Etha, quickly becomes convinced of his innocence and sets out to prove it. But Etha's own probe soon reveals a darker web of secrets, which imperil Temple's chances of reelection and cause the husband and wife to confront their long-standing differences about the nature of grief.
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About the Author
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There is no man more hopeful than a farmer, who wakes each morning to the vagaries of a heifer gone off her feed, seed that doesn't take, a late spring, an early autumn, too much rain, or, worst of all, no rain at all, and still climbs out of bed and pulls up his overalls. And so it would seem that a fellow who swears he can cure this agrarian heartache, who swears he can make it rain, would be clinched to the bosom of every farm family from here to kingdom come.
And that was pretty much the case in the county of Jackson, in the state of Oklahoma, in the bull's-eye of the Dust Bowl, on August 2nd in the heart of the 1930s. As evening fell, farm and townsfolk loaded up their children and climbed into their jalopies. Strung out in a gap-toothed cortege, they motored a ways outside of town. The procession then turned sharply off the road and into a field. This particular field had once been fertile soil, etched into deep furrows. Now it was nothing more than hardpan — as impenetrable and unforgiving as granite. 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.
In silent choreography, the folk parked alongside one another and debarked. As they gathered, billowing dust settled wherever it chose. Pastor Coxey stepped into the semicircle to bless the crowd and the rainmaker's efforts. A woman commenced coughing but quieted when a stranger with rolled shirtsleeves stepped into the headlights' silver shafts. Roland Coombs was tall, with an open, easy face. He grinned and a bit of dental work glinted far back. He'd driven into Vermillion, the county seat of Jackson, just that morning with wooden crates of TNT and blasting powder roped down in the back of an open truck. Tucked within the pocket of his store-bought jacket had been a sheaf of testimonials from drought-stricken towns across four states. Vermillion's Commercial Club had hired him on the spot.
Now Roland was studying the ground, cupping his fist to his chest, as if a pitcher contemplating an opening throw. When he spoke, the words sluiced easily over his lips: "Thank you, Reverend. We are surely in need of the good Lord's blessing."
Several amens resonated from the crowd.
"I am here to tell you that He has placed in my hands the tools with which to bring rain to your parched fields. Nothing complicated. Just this little old matchstick and a load of TNT."
A skiff of dirt blew up, skimming the hardpan and whipping against the bare legs of little girls in short dresses. Several of them set to bawling and had to be comforted.
Roland didn't pause. "You see, I was a munitions man during the war. Shoveling shells into howitzers and blowing the Huns to kingdom come. One afternoon it came to me that every time we'd deliver a good old dose of TNT, we'd get a thunderstorm sure as shootin'. Seemed like the explosions would give the skies a healthy kick in the drawers and down came the rain. Blam if I know why, but it happened all the same."
Roland grinned wide. A good number of the crowd chuckled, relaxing into his river of words. Some, mostly farmers and their wives, retained a stiff reserve. Their hearts had been broken too many times. Yet still they wanted to hope.
Roland cocked a finger at the crowd. "But I recognize some doubters out there. And that's for the good. Because seeing is believing. Tonight I'm going to pepper your skies with TNT and see if you don't get rain by tomorrow afternoon. Maybe not a soaker, but at least a shower to prime the pump. How about that for a guarantee? And I'll keep at it for the next three weeks to make sure the heavier rains follow."
He rubbed his hands together. "So, let's get the ball rolling. Mamas, hold your little ones tight." Switching on a heavy flashlight, he trotted to the launch area he'd set up earlier that day. Twenty shells packed with TNT were pointed nose up toward the stars. Roland squatted to inspect the charges, then began delicately linking each fuse to the detonator. He inhaled. Nothing sweeter than the scent of explosives. For this launch, he'd arranged the shells in two concentric circles. The same pattern had produced rain before and it was worth trying again. It was all about the timing and the pattern. If he found the right combination and summoned up a healthy dousing, the whole Oklahoma Panhandle — hell, the entire High Plains — would be his gravy train. He'd had a couple of miffs. Been escorted to several county lines. But he knew, in his heart of hearts, that he was close to nailing it down. Striking the match, he studied the blue flame. It jiggled like that girlie show dancer he'd seen in Kansas City, who'd shimmied while he and the rest of the audience panted — thumping away under the newspapers covering their unbuttoned flies. He lit the fuse and hustled back to the gathered crowd.
"Ladies, cover your ears. It's a-coming!" he shouted as the rockets shot upward with high-pitched screams. A series of thudding concussions shook the sky and shot vibrations deep into the hardpan. It was as if the millions of buffalo, slaughtered sixty years back, had risen from the dead and were stampeding again. And with the concussions came explosions of harsh white light. Flashes revealing all, then plunging the spectators into darkness, then stripping them naked again. Over and over. The loose blankets of dust on the road, on the fence posts, on the cars, and on the people, rippled and settled time and again.
Some of the folks, including Reverend Coxey, fled to their vehicles. But most, like Jess Fuller whose farm was scheduled for foreclosure the next day, stayed put, with heads cocked back and hands keeping their hats in place. As each explosion burst, Jess pumped his fist, shouting, "You go, you go!" as if cheering on Dizzy Dean rounding the bases. Despite years of toil in the sun and wind, Jess still had a smooth boyish face. Beneath the brim of his woven hat, his eyes were as blue as penny marbles. Hours before, ever since he'd heard about the rainmaker, Jess's ruminations had spun around one thought: Just one good soaking. Justa one. He figured a single cloudburst could salvage the kitchen garden and the remaining cattle, at least enough to hold off foreclosure. Justa one, Lordie.
His wife Hazel stood alongside him in her old-fashioned hat, under which her thoughts spun in a different direction. She was wrung dry. She couldn't squeeze out any more tears for the plot they'd dreamed about as newlyweds in Indiana, the plot they'd scrimped for and bought and tilled and sweet-talked for the past eight years. For the house, in whose single window she'd hung lace curtains. Tomorrow it was all going on the auction block and good riddance. The sooner they got back to Indiana, the sooner they'd get back on their feet. If this rainmaker brought down just a single drop, she knew that Jess would dig in his heels. He'd take it as a sign that the rains would be back, that the green sea of sprouting wheat would again lap at their doorstep. But she understood that the life they'd had in the good years had withered and blown away. With each explosion, she watched mournfully as Jess's face brightened in the white light. The smell of explosives thickened the air. Hazel felt a sprinkling across her hat and for a second she froze. Rain? Already? But when she held out her hand only grains of dirt, tossed by the explosions, spattered into her palm. She smiled.
Then, as suddenly as the clamor had begun, it broke off, leaving behind only an echoing hum that beat against the eardrums of those gathered like moths. Soon, a few jalopies started up, lights from their headlamps thick with swirling soil.
"Show's over!" Roland shouted. "But I'll be here every night for three weeks, so stop on by. I could use the company."
That got a few laughs.
"And set those washtubs out when you get home. The rain's coming, sure as shooting."
Most of the crowd cleared out. A few lingered, including John Hodge, Vermillion's most prominent attorney, and, trailing two steps behind, his wife Florence.
"Impressive show," Hodge said, extending his palm.
Roland pumped the man's hand. "Glad to meet you."
Hodge continued: "Hope your method does the job. Matter of fact, I'm an amateur chemist myself. I was wondering about the explosive compounds you use."
The rainmaker reached for Florence's hand, bending as if to kiss it. "And this must be your lovely ..." he said, then paused and surveyed her face. He cocked his head to one side, narrowed his eyes. Florence's pasty complexion turned to chalk.
She yanked her hand away.
"Say, you look familiar." Roland slowly shook a finger at her.
Florence quickly pressed a hankie over her nose and mouth.
"Is it all right if I go back to the car? I'm not well," she said to her husband.
"Stay where you be." Then, turning to Roland, Hodge grabbed the man's arm, his fingers pressing hard enough to bruise. "Don't you ever touch my wife again."
Roland raised his hands in surrender. "No harm intended."
"Just so we're clear on that. Right?"
Hodge went on: "I've got some questions about your operation. And keep in mind I kicked in a fifty toward your fee."
Roland smiled tightly. "I appreciate that and I'm glad to give you the low-down on my system."
"That's more like it. What I'm wanting to know is how the materials are packed into the tubes. What goes in first?"
As Roland answered the lawyer's questions, keeping back a couple of trade secrets, his eyes shifted to the thin pale woman half-hidden behind her husband's broad back. When Hodge's inquiry ran out of gas, he gruffly thanked Roland, snatched his wife's arm, and stomped off toward the cluster of parked cars.
Roland watched as the fellow's sedan backed up with a jolt and accelerated toward the road. He dipped his head in thought, then trotted out to the detonation site. The beam of his flashlight illuminated the blackened squibs. As Roland collected the rocket launchers, three teenagers in baggy denim uniforms approached.
"That was the aces," said the shortest kid. He had the clipped accent of a city boy.
Roland studied the youth's wide-legged stance, the brim of his hat rolled back over wavy dark hair. "Where you boys from?"
"CCC camp, just west of town," the kid said.
Roland finger-snapped the patch on the boy's sleeve. "Civilian Conservation Corp. I've heard of that. So FDR's tree army has set up shop in Jackson County?"
The kid nodded. "I'm Carmine. This is Chet and Gordie." He jerked a thumb toward his two sandy-haired companions, who had the gangly appearance of Midwestern farm boys.
"We was thinking it would be swell if you'd come out to the camp one of these days and talk to the fellows about your setup."
"Be glad to."
From across the way came the slow crunch of tires on gravel as the last of the spectators departed.
"How you boys getting back to town?" Roland asked.
Carmine shrugged. "Hoofing it, I guess."
"How about you three help me load my equipment? I'll give you a ride and throw in a round of beers."
After the crates were loaded under a canvas tarp, the boys scrambled on top. The truck had bumped along a mile or so when its lamps shone on a stooped figure tromping toward town.
"Want a lift?" Roland called out, tugging on the brakes.
The man, wearing a shapeless fedora, wordlessly waved Roland off without lifting his head.
"Suit yourself, old-timer," Roland said, releasing the clutch and applying the gas.
From his perch in the back, Carmine watched the man diminish in size until he was no more than a blurred gray shape before he disappeared altogether. "Nuts to youz, grandpops," he yelled, leaning back against the covered crates and stretching out his legs. "More room for us."
The truck putt-putted toward town, a dark mourning veil of dust in its wake. Shuffling along the berm, the bent traveler coughed and spat. After that, the quiet of the prairie was restored and the only sounds were the creak of his boots, the arid susurrations of the dead stalks, and the prayers of the people.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Death of a Rainmaker"
Copyright © 2018 Laurie Loewenstein.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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