Wednesday, March 05, 2008

“Holmes on the Range” – Steve Hockensmith

How could you not love a novel with a title like that? The rest of the book, short-listed for the best-first-novel Edgar Award in 2007, is just as good. The surprise to me was that it was not quite the campy riot the title had led me to expect.

Instead, it’s a good mystery and a good Western at same time, full of the sights, sounds and, especially, smells of Montana range life in the 1890s. There is pathos, there is cruelty, there are drama and tasty contrasts between rough-hewn ranch hands and their ranch’s aristocratic English owners. And, yes, there are funny lines. The cowboys’ speech is colorful, some of it wonderfully so, but not over the top:

Blastin’ yourself in the skull ain’t sharpshootin’. You’d have to get your hand right up against your noggin. And if you did that, not only would you end up wearin’ your brains for a glove … "

“I smacked into its mangy hide like a snowball dashed against the side of a barn, coming down hard on my saddle-warmer … "
Gustav Amlingmeyer, called "Old Red," is the Holmes of the title. He has a Watson in his brother Otto, or Big Red, and he eagerly awaits old copies of Harper’s magazine, so Big Red can read him the latest exploits of that great deducifyin’ and detectiving Englishman, Sherlock Holmes. The great detective is both a model and an inspiration for the admirable Old Red.

(Hockensmith has followed Holmes on the Range with two more in the series: On the Wrong Track and the new The Black Dove.)

"`Are you American or British?' Old Red asked.

"Edwards simply glowered for a moment, obviously weighing whether to answer.

"`I'm from Boston,' he finally said.

"`Oh?' Gustav rubbed his chin, his left eyebrow arched up high. `You know, I'm not sure if that really answers my question.'"
© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Linkmeister said...

One does wonder (well, this one wonders, anyway) what prompted Hockensmith to think of transplanting Sherlock Holmes to Montana.

March 05, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The thing is, he didn't exactly transplant Holmes to Montana. He didn't simply plunk a Holmes down in the middle of the range; that would have been too easy. Instead, he imagined a Montana cowhand influenced by Holmes as indeed, one imagines such a man might indeed have been so influenced reading magazines from back East, and the like.

Having done that, he probably had a lot of fun imagining the possibilities and letting his pen (or keyboard) run riot. The result was quite an act of imagination and well worth reading.

March 06, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I took your word for it earlier and requested the first two at my library. It doesn't have The Black Dove yet.

Yes, I realized that Amlingmeyer was a devotee rather than Holmes himself (although suppose he had moved to Montana rather than retiring to keep bees in Sussex!).

Somebody had fun with a resumé for Holmes.

March 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I realized you realized that Old Red (and he's always called that or simply Gustav) was a devotee rather than Holmes himself. I meant that the character is a lot more than just a Holmes clone plunked down in an unfamiliar setting (Though Hockensmith does give him an amusing variant or two on Holmes' character quirks). I don't know much about Conan Doyle's life, but I seem to recall that one of his stories, I think a non-Holmes tale, is set in large part in the American West. So a Holmes retirement to Montana is not as far-fetched as it might seem.

Incidentally, I looked at that Holmes resume. Is Holmes really ever referred to as grandson of a sister of the French painter Emile Jean-Horace Vernet? I don't know that Vernet, but I've enjoyed paintings by his grandfather, Claude-Joseph Vernet.

March 06, 2008  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

A Study In Scarlet is set partly in Utah.

March 06, 2008  
Blogger GFS3 said...

How fun is any Sherlock Holmes story? We just did an exhaustive interview about the character -- his personality and his relationships.

If you're interested here is the link:

March 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, gfs3. That's an interesting interview. The following passage might be especially pertinent to Steve Hockensmith's books:

"Throughout the stories, we hardly see a hint of where his torment might originate. Conan Doyle not only had the intelligence to create intriguing mysteries, he wisely kept us out of his creation’s head, while fashioning him in a way that is guaranteed to fascinate us. How did such a personality as Holmes come to be? Did he have an unhappy childhood? Was he deceived in love? We will never know, and yet we will always want to know. That is why so many authors have tried to solve the mystery that is Holmes by writing him into their own alternate universes."

March 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Uriah, I'll have to dig out a book of Conan Doyle stories I have lying around here or at work to see which story I'm thinking of. Whether or not I am confused and am really thinking of "A Study in Scarlet," the fact remains that Conan Doyle apparently had an interest in the American West, which gives some background historical resonance to Hockensmith's setting. It will be interesting to see what he does with Old Red's Holmes worship in the subsequent two books in the series.

March 06, 2008  

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