Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Monday, May 25, 2009

Side Trip in the SHRC: Holmes on the Range, Steve Hockensmith



St. Martins's Minotaur, 2006, ISBN 978-0-312-35804-4, 294 pages.


I read this story in November 2008 but, given my new interest in Sherlock Holmes, I decided to rework it and bring it to the top. As my personal Sherlock Holmes Reading Challenge progresses I expect to make occasional side trips into Holmes related material.

As one of the characters describes Holmes story, "The Red-Headed League," Holmes on the Range is a "A dandy little tale."

It's 1893 and the brothers Otto and Gustav Amlingmeyer, otherwise known as Big Red and Old Red, are itinerant cowboys in Montana. The previous year Gustav became a disciple of The Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes, after hearing his brother read "The Red-Headed League." As Otto describes it, Some people get religion. Gustav got Sherlock Holmes. Gustav is taken with the methods Holmes uses to solve cases, his powers of observation, and figures he would make a fine detective himself. I draw specific comparisons at the end of this post. You can which you can jump to them here Old Red and Sherlock Holmes

Old Red is curious about the mysterious and secretive Bar VR ranch and wrangles them a job there when the foreman comes to town recruiting. The Bar VR is British owned, VR being short for Victoria Regina.

When they get to the ranch they are met by Perkins, the manager, who tells them that their job is to keep quiet, do what they are told, go only where they are told to go, and don't try to show initiative. The Hornet's Nesters (as the new hands call themselves after the bar where they got the job) are put to work doing repairs and cleanup, no real cowboy work.

One day the deputy U.S. Marshall shows up to warn the ranch that Hungry Bob, an noted cannibal has escaped and may be in the area. The possible presence of Bob becomes a thread that runs through the rest of the story.

One night there is a terrible storm and all hands are on horseback trying to get the cattle to high ground. The next day it is discovered that Perkins is missing having last been seen by Big Red and Old Red during the storm. Everyone heads out to look for him. His remains are found, he apparently fell from his horse and was trampled. Big Red eloquently describes the remains - The remaining dribs and drabs of gristle were mixed in with the mud like strips of undercooked beef in a bowl of Texas chili.

Old Red thinks that Perkins' death might not have been an accident and decides I've got serious dectin' to do.

The absentee owner arrives with his entourage. He is the Duke of Balmoral, Richard Brackenstock de Vere St. Simon. Not long after there is another murder, Boudroux the albino negro, and Old Red gets the duke to agree to let him investigate before the authorities arrive. The duke is a gambler and is more interested in winning a bet with Edwards, a member of his party than seeing Old Red solve the case.

There is a danger that a novelty theme like cowboy detectives can't be sustained for an entire book but that isn't the case here. I enjoyed everything about the story. Parts of it might remind you of the movie Blazing Saddles and at times I heard Lefty and Dusty, the cowboys featured on Prairie Home Companion, in my head as I read.

Big Red and Old Red are simple cowboys but at the same time have a complexity that set them off from their peers. Big Red is literate and has worked as a clerk. Old Red, though illiterate, has a keen mind and powers of observation. He is a serious student of Holmes' methods and works on his deductifyin skills. The author works in the relationship of the brothers, how they are the remaining members of their family, and the bonds between them.

Old Red and Sherlock Holmes

In the world that Hockensmith created, Sherlock Holmes is a real person and the stories Big Red reads to Old Red are those written by Watson. As with Watson, the story is told in first person by Big Red who becomes the recorder. "Well, someone's gotta take down notes and such" says Old Red when asked why he needs his brother's assistance.

Otto tells us that Gustav got the nickname Old Red, not because of his age but his attitude, ..having as he does a crotchety side more befitting a man of seventy-two than twenty-seven. Holmes himself is twenty-seven in A Study in Scarlett and not shown as a cheerful and outgoing sort.

In the conclusion to A Study in Scarlet, Holmes describes analytical reasoning, reasoning backward from result to cause. Old Red displays that attribute when he and Big Red come upon the remains of Perkins after the stampede. Big Red accepts the evidence - Perkins fell off and was trampled. Old Red works backwards, looking for evidence to explain how it happened.

Hockensmith works in a direct link to Holmes. The British Duke St. Simon is the father of Robert St. Simon who was a client of Holmes in The Noble Bachelor. That case did not end happily for the St. Simon family.

In The Sign of the Four Holmes describes the three qualities needed for the ideal detective: power of observation, power of deduction, and knowledge. Like the French detective Francois Villard described in The Sign of the Four, Old Red only "deficient is the wide range of exact knowledge."

Old Red tells the Duke that I've made a study of the science of observation and deduction. Holmes uses this expression in his article, "The Book of Life" which Watson described as "ineffable twaddle."

Someone who has read A Study in Scarlet will see similarities between the scene where Big Red examines the murder of Boudreaux and Holmes exploring the scene of Enoch Drebber's murder: completely absorbed, muttering to himself, throwing himself flat on the ground to better examine a clue.

I believe that Holmes, encountering Big Red, would recognize in him a kindred spirit and hold him much higher regard than he does the detectives of Scotland Yard, Gregson and Lestrade. Remember, Holmes thinks his Baker Street Irregulars are more efficient than Scotland Yard so Holmes would have no difficulty acknowledging Old Red.

Holmes on the Range is a fun read with interesting characters and a good story that is Dickensian at the end. There are now two more books in the series - On the Wrong Track and The Black Dove - and I look forward in seeing how Old Red progresses with his Holmesifying.