Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Review: Funeral Train by Laurie Loewenstein

Several years ago, Loewenstein's first Dust Bowl Mystery was selected for the Great Group Reads List by the Women's National Book Association. At the time, I wasn't really reading mysteries, even literary mysteries, but since I'm the Chair of the committee that chooses the list and my committee had overwhelmingly voted for it, I had to read it. I'm so glad I did. And now I've gotten to revisit the small, struggling Oklahoma town of Vermillion, its sheriff, his wife, and so many of the other characters from the first novel in this second book of the series, Funeral Train.

Sheriff Temple Jennings is on the way to the train depot to pick up his wife, Etha, who has been away visiting a friend when there is a terrible noise and it becomes clear that the train has derailed. Etha is seriously injured and ends up in the hospital in the bed next to an elderly black woman she recognizes from a brief interaction before the derailment. The woman was only spared an immediate death because she was outside the dangerously rickety colored car at the time of the derailment. Temple wants to focus on Etha and her injury but when the cause of the derailment is most certainly sabotage, he must investigate. The following day a reclusive bookkeeper who lived by the railroad tracks is found murdered and now Temple has a derailment and a murder, potentially connected, on his hands. Temple, his deputy, a young man from the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), and the detective from the railroad will have to work together, with an assist from Etha, to solve the crimes.

Although this is the second book in a planned trilogy, it easily stands alone. Loewenstein has done a masterful job evoking the hardscrabble town, limping its way through the Depression and the crop smothering Dust Bowl years. She weaves sad and tragic realities of life at the time through the plot without dwelling heavily on them: the suicides, bootlegging, the bankruptcies and subsequent poverty, alcoholism, hopelessness, and moral lapses. She does a wonderful job of bringing small details, like Gwendolyn the wayward cow, from the beginning of the story back in the end. Temple and Etha are lovely characters, devoted to each other and kind to others around them. The mystery is perhaps not the hardest to figure out but the story is more about the people and the community than it is about the mystery. The derailment is based on an actual train derailment in 1929 and the conditions of the colored car and subsequent horrific deaths were taken from that real event. Given that basis, the racial aspect of the story did not play as big a role as might be expected although it definitely feels as if that dangling plot thread will come back again in the final book of the trilogy. I enjoyed checking back in with the residents of Vermillion and appreciated the engaging story so I'll look forward to book three whenever it arrives.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me a copy of this to review.

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