Monday, May 21, 2007

Holmes on the Range: Steve Hockensmith

Perhaps no other fictional detective has been emulated, imitated, twisted, and parodied as much as Sherlock Holmes. Steve Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range (the first in the series) is a delightful attempt at taking Sherlock to the Wild West of the U.S.

The Brothers Gustav Amlingmeyer and Otto Amlingmeyer (Old Red and Big Red) are farm hands in Montana. The elder brother, Old Red is a fan of Sherlock Holmes (Some folks get religion. Gustav got Sherlock Holmes.) and his “deducifyin” skills, and his brother Big Red is his story reader (Old Reader can’t read while Big Red can a bit) and Dr. Watson.

Holmes on the Range, is set in 1893, so in a sense it is contemporaneous to Sherlock Holmes. Old Red and Big Red sign on (as part of a group of seven, called the Hornet’s Nesters) as hands at a secretive ranch, the Bar VR (referred to as the Cantlemere Ranch by the English owners, another nice Holmes connection). Lowly paid, working in the open in the freezing winter in a dilapidated ranch (owned, rather pompously, by the Sussex Land and Cattle Company) with a surly suspicious supervisor, the circumstances are right for Old Red to get into some “detectivizing.” A totally mutilated dead body turns up and the stage is set for the Reds. A second murder completes the set up. And the owners (the “chairman” of the Sussex Land and Cattle Company and two “shareholders”, along with their entourage) land up and Old Red is given one day by them to “solve” the mystery. How he goes about the task and succeeds forms the rest of the story. And in a delightful twist, one of the owners also has a connection with Sherlock Holmes – a little forced for sure, but delightful nevertheless.

A cannibal on the loose (Hungry Bob Tracy) is a bit of a distraction in the book, though his relevance comes in when his body parts come in handy to mask and therefore reveal one of the murders in the story. Well, Sir Doyle had a touch of the macabre in his stories as well, so we will do well to forgive Steve Hockensmith for this.

“Witty” is not a word I would have ever thought of using to characterize a book written by an American (no, I don’t mean it in the pejorative sense, it’s just that “witty” in my mind is oh-so-English), but Steve Hockensmith’s writing is precisely that. The humor is all pervasive in the dialogues between the Red brothers, and Big Red’s asides, brilliant dry wit. The book is just peppered with this that to pick just one or two examples is close to impossible. Pick up Holmes on the Range and read it – this is one book you don’t want to miss. I eagerly await the next book.

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