Monday, November 19, 2007

Saddlebums Review: Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith

Holmes on the Range is a little different from the usual fare here at Saddlebums—it fits in quite nicely, but it is unique in that it is a Sherlock Holmes-type whodunit that is set in the Western United States of the 1890s. Big Red and Old Red are brothers who earn their livings the hard way. They do it from the back of a horse, but that doesn’t stop Old Red from admiring the work of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, which he studies evenings in the bunkhouse from the pages of The Strand. His younger brother, Big Red, reads them aloud because Old Red isn't lettered.

When the two take a job on a ranch in Montana they figure everything will be usual—long hours, poor pay, and barely edible food. When the ranch accountant turns up dead Old Red decides it’s time to employ his mentor’s—Sherlock Holmes—tested technique of detection. He sets out to investigate the death, but things tense-up as bodies are added to the casualty list, and then the ranch threatens to explode, figuratively, when the English owners show up unannounced. It doesn’t help matters that the local cannibal, Hungry Bob, is roaming the territory making everyone a little uneasy.

Holmes on the Range is a perfect mixture of Western lore and British mystery. Mr Hockensmith deftly combines two genres in a unique and unusual manner to create an intelligent and humorous story that will be enjoyed by fans of both genres. It is narrated by Big Red—the lettered brother—who admirably fills the role of Dr Watson. His voice is strong, funny as hell, and lucid in its descriptions of both the land and the characters that occupy it. The opening lines read:

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.

So it’s quite a compliment I bestow when I say that the remains we came across the day after the big storm were the most frightful I’d ever seen.

The dialogue is sharp. The diction and idioms of the time period are captured well: He could still be south of here somewhere, runnin’ free or flat as frying pan. The characters are, put simply, characters. They have unique traits and names—Uly, Spider, Swede, Tall John, Swivel-Eye, Anytime, and Crazymouth. And the mystery is top-notch: I didn’t guess the murderer, or the motive, until late in the game.

Holmes on the Range is one of the better novels I have read this year. It is different, compelling, and humorous without being silly. I was hooked from the opening sentence, and Steve Hockensmith not only delivered on this early promise, but he exceeded my expectations. This is a novel that should be read by anyone who loves a mystery, a western, or just a good, well-written tale.


Anonymous said...

Wow, this sounds like a great read. I love the opening lines you quoted, and the sound of this novel in general. I'll have give this a try. Thanks for the tip and great review.


Anonymous said...

I agree. At first, the title put me off, as I am not that keen on Sherlock Holmes stories, but the opening lines were great, and the addition of the "local cannibal ... roaming around making everyone uneasy" adds a whole other element. I'll definitely try this story.

Thanks again for the review. This blog is so useful!!


Chap O'Keefe said...

Steve Hockensmith has the right mix -- mystery, colorful characters, a dash of humor and the Wild West.

For what it's worth, the edition of the online Black Horse Extra that featured the article on western/crime fiction crossovers, Detectives in Cowboy Boots, has received about 400 more page visits than any other edition, and is still being visited and revisited.

Though I don't believe in giving "how to" advice as such, writers and would-be writers might like to take note that such stories have been and are popular.

That said, a western with a strong mystery element requires sounder plotting and planning than than one without. Either that, or a willingness to do plenty of backtracking, revision and second drafts (maybe more) to tie up loose ends effectively.

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