April 12, 2006

BOOKS: Holmes on the Range, Steve Hockensmith (2006)

Gustav and Otto Amlingmeyer -- known as "Old Red" and "Big Red," respectively -- are cowboys, and they've just signed on to work at the Bar VR ranch in Montana. The place has an unsavory reputation, and their employers are secretive as can be, but it's still a shock for the brothers when they come across a body. Well, what's left of a body, to be precise, as the corpse has been trampled to bits, the apparent victim of a cattle stampede.

Old Red (who's not really all that old at 26) is a fan of Sherlock Holmes. It's 1893, and the stories of Holmes's adventures have just begun to appear in American magazines, and Gustav insists that his brother read him each new tale as they appear (Gustav himself is "not on speaking terms with the alphabet"). He's fascinated by Holmes's deductive skills, and when another body turns up on the Bar VR, Gustav decides that he's just as capable of solving a murder as Holmes is.

Hockensmith has given us a clever Sherlockian mystery here, with an array of interesting suspects, some sharp-eyed deducing from Gustav and Otto, and lively first-person narration from Big Red, playing Watson to his older brother's Holmes. The language has enough dialect and period jargon to feel authentic, but doesn't lay it on so thick that it's hard to wade through; here's the opening paragraph:

There are two things you can't escape out here in the West: dust and death. They sort of swirl together in the wind, and a fellow never knows when a fresh gust is going to blow one or the other right in his face. So while I'm yet a young man, I've already laid eyes on every manner of demise you could put a name to. I've seen folks drowned, shot, stabbed, starved, frozen, poisoned, hung, crushed, gored by steers, dragged by horses, bitten by snakes, and carried off by an assortment of illnesses with which I could fill the rest of this book and another besides.

Holmes on the Range is a charmer; there's ample room for sequels, and I hope that Hockensmith gives us more adventures of the Amlingmeyer brothers.

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