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Review: Funeral Train, by Laurie Loewenstein
Akashic, 2022. 263 pp. $38

One evening in 1935, a passenger train derails near Vermilion, a small town in the Oklahoma panhandle. The wreck causes fearsome damage and fills the hospital with the wounded and dying. Sheriff Temple Jennings is overwhelmed, not just with the enormity of the tragedy but its personal nature for him: his beloved wife, Etha, was on that train, and he panics when he can’t find her among the survivors.

Luckily, he soon retrieves his bearings, for the derailment may have been no accident, and there are many threads to follow before he can penetrate the mystery. Meanwhile, his young deputy, Ed McCance, locates Etha and sees her to an ambulance, but the sheriff can’t stop worrying about her. That anxiety doubles when the doctor insists that she stay flat on her back, something she’s never done—and for Christmas, a few days away, her niece and her drunk, deadbeat husband are coming to visit. Etha would move heaven and earth for them.

Law enforcement in those parts usually involves dealing with moonshiners. The federal government may have repealed Prohibition, but local law forbids any alcoholic drink stronger than beer, and beer’s enough to bring about drunk and disorderly behavior.

Also, scarcity arising from the depression and Dust Bowl has influenced certain citizens who might have been law-abiding to stray from the straight and narrow. Scams and dodges come to light all the time. And then there’s Gwendolyn, a heifer who wanders in the roadway, causing trouble for motorists, because her owner can’t manage to keep his fences repaired.

Naturally, these concerns fall away once the derailment happens. And the next night, a woman is murdered while walking her dog in her backyard. Since she lived near the tracks, is her death connected to the railroad sabotage—if that’s what occurred—or a separate crime?

A chief pleasure of Funeral Train is how Loewenstein portrays a Dust Bowl town and its denizens. You can practically feel the grit between your fingers, taste the desperation, the search for sweet or pleasant moments amid the dreariness, the thin margins of just getting by. The author shows the tavern, the hospital, the soda fountain run by the local go-getter, the chicken farmer ornery because he’s deep in debt and his wife has run off with the kids.

Also, the lawmen have edges and corners, something not every mystery writer bothers with. Temple’s deputy, McCance, was apparently down and out a year before the novel begins, but the sheriff has taken a chance on him. Ed’s trying hard to learn all he can, make a better life for himself and his young bride. You see both lawmen make mistakes and sweat from unexpected danger, not at all sure they’ll make it. I like that too–and the subplot of the visiting niece feels real.

Loewenstein also pays attention to Jim Crow. The Black passengers on the train suffered the worst of the accident, because their segregated car, made of wood rather than metal and in terrible shape, was hooked up right behind the locomotive. In the crash, the car collapsed like a concertina, and the people trapped within got flooded with scalding water from the boiler. The railroad—the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, or AT&SF—shows complete indifference to them.

Among the characters flowing through the novel is Claude Steele, the detective the railroad sends. Temple meets him when he arrives at the station:

Most of the AT&SF policemen that Temple ran into over the years were ex-cops who continued to dress the part: spit-and shine uniforms, brass buttons, epaulets, and visored caps bearing shields. None of the travelers matched that look. A stranger who did approach him, hand out, was outfitted in a bulky topcoat, woolen suit jacket, and greasy vest. Sagging gray trousers overflowed a pair of unbuckled rubber boots—their clasps flapping with each step. Temple swallowed his surprise.

He’s quite a character, Claude, obsessed with railroads. His hobby is collecting railroad spikes, which come in different designs, though that’s changing in the march toward standardization, which he mourns. No one can escape hearing about the various kinds, including the fortyish woman working in the boardinghouse where he rooms, who actually seems interested. As you might guess, Claude’s also enamored of his detective skills, and since Temple, Ed, and he must team up, that affects the story.

This spanking new 1935 prototype of an AT&SF diesel locomotive, not introduced until the following year (courtesy Acme News Service, published by Mexia Weekly Herald, via Wikimedia Commons. Copyright not renewed; public domain)

By now, it’s probably obvious that where some mystery writers toss in historical details and atmosphere almost as an afterthought, Loewenstein focuses on them. Though that gives Funeral Train a rare sense of time and place, I thought one aspect of the mystery a little too cut-and-dried. But it’s a gripping story whose rough edges feel real, depicting people no better than they should be. I recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.