There’s an expectation for mystery novels to exude atmosphere. Maybe that’s because of Dashiell Hammett’s cool and hard-edged San Francisco, Raymond Chandler’s lush and corrupt Los Angeles, or George Simenon’s lively Paris side streets and bistros. A city especially lends itself to the genre’s atmospheric requirements. Death of a Rainmaker, Columbia, Maryland-based writer Laurie Loewenstein’s new mystery novel, instead does the opposite: It expertly evokes the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Lacking the more typical urban pizazz, Loewenstein’s novel sometimes reads like a combination of a Western and a mystery. But that genre mishmash works.
“Not an iota of rain had dribbled into the parched mouth of Jackson County for 240 days,” Loewenstein tells us about the town of Vermillion, Oklahoma, where Temple Jennings is sheriff. Everything is dry as dust, and farmers are so desperate they fall for the snake oil of a rainmaker, who claims that a truck full of TNT can open the heavens. Before he has much of a chance to prove his claims, however, he turns up dead.
During Jennings’ investigation, life in the Dust Bowl goes on, which means, mostly, foreclosures. The sheriff dislikes participating on the bank’s side—“foreclosures sickened him”—but accepts it as part of his job. His wife dislikes foreclosures even more, because she thinks the banks don’t play fair. Everywhere, farmers become destitute. Crops won’t grow. “Dunes rippled across the highway, as if the denuded land were trying to draw a blanket over its naked limbs,” Loewenstein writes.
In addition to dust, wandering hobos dot the landscape. They settle briefly at a homeless encampment called “the jungle,” just outside town. One teenage boy tells how he had to leave home because there were too many mouths to feed. The sheriff’s wife, Etha, “had read about young men cast out, set loose because there were no jobs, no food.” The jungle’s inhabitants live in tents and makeshift lean-tos, while luckier vagabonds squat in abandoned sod houses. A step up from this are the boarders at the local rooming house.
The crime at the center of the novel occurs during the sheriff’s re-election campaign, so he’s eager to wrap up the case in a speedy manner, to impress voters. He quickly pushes his investigation to a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC, as the Roosevelt-era program was known) camp, filled with young, former vagabonds, now at work in the government program. The sheriff’s deputy, Ed, a loyal former CCCer, admits that “some in the corps are nothing but young toughs.” Still, Ed believes “that a CCCer wouldn’t kill a man. Not when life was looking so much better for him.”
The CCCers live in barracks outside town under a nearly military discipline. Of the CCC boys, half “got told to leave home by their ma or pa—some nicely, some not—because the family couldn’t afford to feed them.” This program and the hope it instills in the young homeless characters wrap the story in a Depression ambiance.
The desiccated landscape hovers over everything. “In Oklahoma the palette was nothing but brown. Brown bridal trains of dust billowed behind tractors. Curtains turned from white to strong coffee. Folks spit river mud after a duster. Washes of beige, cinnamon and umber bled into the blue sky.” Loewenstein vividly describes enduring a dust storm, and how easy and fatal it is to be trapped in one. She portrays the drought’s effect on everything from the price of stunted livestock at a foreclosure auction to the rising incidence of pneumonia caused by dust.
The novel alludes to farmers in some counties banding together against the banks. In Vermillion this does not occur, despite lots of grumbling, because the bank, like the sheriff, is seen as a pillar of local society. It would have been interesting to read more than a mention of one of these rebellions, when farmers refused to accept their dispossession meekly.
Death of a Rainmaker does portray a local effort to outsmart a foreclosure, and the sheriff, sympathetic to it, does not intervene. But it stops short of portraying any full-blown revolt against destitution, which would have added much to the story, since destitution is, after all, this compelling mystery’s encompassing environment.
Kaylie Jones Books, 312 pages. Available here.