Death of a Rainmaker (Dustbowl Mystery)

Written by Laurie Loewenstein
Review by K. M. Sandrick

Roland Coombs promises residents of Jackson County, Oklahoma, that the TNT-packed rockets he sends screaming into the night air will bring rain to the farms that have not seen a drop of it in 242 days. The next afternoon he is found dead, bludgeoned to death and hidden below a pile of dirt blown by an hour-long dust storm that shook the walls and scoured the bricks of the Jewel Movie House before depositing mounds of sand and soil near the exit door.

Death of a Rainmaker chronicles the investigation of Coombs’ death by sheriff Temple Jennings and his deputy Ed McCance, fresh from a tour in the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the challenges it imposes on the lawmen: Jennings’ run for re-election against a formidable foe and McCance’s refusal to believe a fellow CCCer could have committed the crime.

Death of a Rainmaker is far more than a murder mystery set in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. It is a poignant recollection of the desperation of farmers whose land, livestock, and household are in foreclosure, a stunning description of a dust storm that leaves imaginary specks of dirt on the reader’s neck, a sensitive rendering of tough times and their toll on the psyche.

Some books have such fine character detail—McCance’s choice of a Common Sense Traveler’s Notebook, suitable for a professional lawman, not a “CCC pity case,” for example—and complex, nuanced storyline that the reader naturally slows down to savor the experience. This is one of them.