read_warbler (read_warbler) wrote,

Holmes on the Range

Talk about a strange mix... cowboys and Sherlock Holmes? Shouldn't work should it? Well here's the odd thing: it really, really does.

Holmes on the Range is by Steve Hockensmith and it concerns two brothers, Gustav and Otto Amlingmeyer. Gustav, known as Old Red, (the boys are red-heads) is the elder of the two, he has a good brain but is illiterate. Otto, known as Big Red, is taller and heavier than his brother, one might say the 'brawns' of the duo but in actual fact it is Otto who is the more educated of the two, being able to read and write competently. The two men are alone in the world, various tragedies having befallen their parents and siblings some years ago. And thus they stick together, 'look out for each other' in an existence which is both unpredictable and violent. They are cowboys 'out west' in the USA in the 1890s.

The boys are in a bar in Miles, Montana with no jobs when the McPherson brothers stroll in. They're currently running a ranch for some English landowners, the Cantlemere ranch or the Bar VR as it's known locally. The ranch has a secretive and unsavoury reputation but the McPhersons are hiring and before Otto knows what's happened Gustav has volunteered them both.

Arriving at the ranch with a motley group of other hands it's clear that they haven't been hired to be proper cowboys. Renovating the buildings on the ranch is the priority and intimidation is the way things are done. It's quite clear that there is something going on and Otto realises that that is why his brother has signed them on. Gustav is a huge fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories which have filtered their way across the Atlantic to the US. Otto reads them aloud and Gustav has become a follower of Holmes and a studier of his methods. It seems that Gustav has decided to investigate the Bar VR.

Already bad enough, things become much nastier and more dangerous when a mutilated body is discovered out on the range. It's Perkins, the English manager of the ranch, a strange individual who, it was clear, has recently had problems of some sort. The English owners of the ranch arrive to check on the ranch and its profitablility. The Duke of Balmoral, his daughter and two hangers on are like fishes out of water and a real diversion from the harsh realities of life on the ranch. And then another murder is committed. The circumstances are peculiar and its assumed the man has killed himself but Gustav thinks otherwise. Most are sceptical but, using the 'deducifyin'' methods of the great Sherlock Holmes, Gustav sets out to prove them all wrong.

As I said at the start, none of this should work, but it actually does. I think the thing that makes the book a success is that it's written in the first person, from the point of view of Otto, the younger brother. He's a great narrator... long suffering, loyal, totally befuddled at times and not afraid to say so. He has a wonderful 'tell it like it is' sense of humour, pulling no punches and sparing the reader no gory details. I thought he was delightful.

The book is full of very colourful characters in fact. From the menacing McPherson brothers and their cohorts, to the ranch hands with wonderful names such as Swivel-eye, Crazy Mouth (English cockney so no-one has a clue what he's talking about), Anytime, and so on. If there's a weak spot in the novel it's perhaps that the English aristocratic owners were a trifle cliched... more caricatures than perhaps was strictly necessary... the Duke for instance is an arrogant, short-tempered man who'd gambled away the family's money. On the other hand the story would not have been as entertaining without them, so you pays your money and takes your choice.

I found it very interesting to read about ranching in Montana in the 1890s. It was clearly a hard, unforgiving life and life expectancy was not high. If the tough conditions or illness didn't get you it seems you had a pretty good chance of being gunned down by someone. Violence was never far from the surface. I had no idea that a lot of the landowners in Montana during that time were English aristocracy. I don't know who I thought they might have been, but English had not occurred to me. I had also never heard of a cattalo before. It seems it's a cross between buffalo and cattle. The resulting offsping were high in meat yield and withstood the hard winters, but they were unpredictable and foul tempered. Plus the calves with their buffalo humps were hard for the cows to deliver. I gather the practise is still continued and the animals are now called beefalo, instead... but the market is hardly flooded with the meat so I'm assuming the procedure still has its difficulties.

Anyway. A good fun read, with quite a complicated plot... I had no real idea of what was going on until the end... and memorable, entertaining characters. I was shocked to find that since I bought this one, four more books in this series have been written, so I'll be getting those from the library at some stage. I'll be entering this one under 'Montana' in my American challenge list, although I think proceeding books take place all over the USA. A good new series to add to my ever-growing list!
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