Wednesday, 8 February 2012

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!


Susan said...

What a thoughtful review about a very interesting book, Cath! I think I am going to see if my library has this one. Not that I need any more series to start, right? lol I like how you talk about the juxtaposition of qualities that shouldn't work but do. It's fun to see how authors make them work, isn't it? You are finding some really good books right now, aren't you? and then we are too! lol

Cath said...

Susan: Having said all that about it beng an odd mix, I totally forgot that at the end of one of the first Holmes novels there is a long scene set in the wild-west of America, (it's an explanatory bit) so perhaps I was a bit hasty in that statement. lol. I think it might be A Study in Scarlett but am not certain. I heard it was not that popular and CD got some geographical details of Wyoming (I think it was) wrong too. Oooops.

I'm loving the books I'm finding this year. Both of us are I think? I'm being quite inspired by your enthusiasm with the sci-fi books, you know? I just started a bio of Dodie Smith's childhood for a bedtime read but am undecided about another sci-fi read alongside it. I found an ancient copy of Time for the Stars by Robert Heinlein - never read anything by him but my daughter was a huge fan as a teen. There's also something much newer, Darkship Thieves by Sarah Hoyt. Loads of choice but I don't want anything too heavy as we have our grandaughter coming to stay on Sunday and I won't be able to read a lot.

DesLily said...

so... does this now make you want to read westerns? because america has loads of them! lol Some true and many fiction! Zane Gray comes to mind.
I do think if a writer is really good and really into the storyline that things like that just "work" with no explanation.

Cath said...

Pat: Yes, I definitely plan to read a few westerns this year. Zane Gray, Louis L'Amour and so on... I have a boxed set I picked up cheap of various authors too.

I think you're right - a really good author can make anything work if he believes in what he (or she) is writing. Plus it helps that the likes of you and I and Susan are very open-minded about trying something different. I wish I lived nextdoor or across the street from you and Susan, this book would be passed on to both of you! lol!

animewookie said...

Ooooo, a real who done it!! What a concept...cowboys and Sherlock Holmes. Sounds like it could have hit or missed. Glad it was a hit for you Cath :D

fiction-books said...

Hi Cath,

Great review of a book that sounds as though it has a very confusing storyline.

I am not sure that it is really my kind of thing, however I have been asked to read some books lately that have taken be right out of my comfort zone and have been surprised by just how much I have enjoyed them, so I may just give this one a try.

I always enjoyed watching the westerns on TV as a child, although it was my father who avidly borrowed just about every western book on the library shelves.

I hadn't realised that any of the 'Holmes' novels referred to the wild-west of America, so it was a great tie-in by the author to think of bringing the two together. Not a surprise perhaps when you check out the other books that this author has written, they al look very quirky to say the least.

Have a good weekend.

Cath said...

Pat: I think Amazon must be spying on us because they just sent me a list of best selling westerns! Some of them actually sound quite good...

Yvonne: Not confusing really, just a lot going on and you need to pay attention. Something I'm not always that good at. lol.

I think it's a good thing to be taken out of your reading comfort zone. I don't do it often enough but when I do - as you said - I nearly always find it very rewarding. And those books are often the ones that make my top ten at the end of the year.

I wonder if the author did read the end of A Study in Scarlett and got his idea for a series that way. If so, I think it was extremely clever of him and well worth the effort.

I was a big western fan as a child too, Laramie, Wagon Train and so on, loads of them.

Enjoy your weekend too, hope you're not snowed in.

Cath said...

Kelly: Yes, it's a concept that could have gone seriously wrong! I'm looking forward to trying the rest of the series as it sounds like there are some good plots among them.

Cathy said...

I was first "introduced" to Montana by a childhood penpal who lived on a ranch. It was normal for that family to be snowed in for weeks at a time in the winter. Not my cup of tea!

I loved this book, and will soon be reading the next in the series because I have an upcoming interview with Hockensmith on my blog.

I also happen to live in Arizona, about a 90-minute drive from where Zane Grey had a cabin. There's a lot of Wild West here!

Cath said...

Cathy: Must've been a wonderful sort of upbringing for your penpal though!

I plan to get book 2 quite soon as well. Can't wait to see your interview with Steve Hockensmith. I'm busy this week, with our grand-daughter staying, so if it looks like I've missed it give me a nudge. :-)

Oddly enough I downloaded several free westerns to my Kindle last night and one of them was a Zane Grey - Riders of the Purple Sage. There are loads of his books available for free online.

Penny said...

Sold! I was eager to hear how you liked this, Cath, and now I know I will need to get Holmes on the Range. What an interesting concept. Your review is so much fun to read, as is the next one on the science fiction books (you are making me more and more curious to read a few of these). Wonderful!

Cath said...

Penny: It's an incredibly interesting concept. I was brought up on American western TV series so this was like a trip down memory lane for me. Looking at the rest of the books they all seem to be different with different setting and premises so am looking forward to sampling those.

Science fiction is such a huge genre and, as with other genres, there is something for everyone. I've not sampled very much of the hardcore stuff. As with other genres, crime for instance, my tastes are more mid-range, thought provoking or adventure based, rather than highly scientific or very frightening. If books were films, Star Trek rather than Alien.

Debbie Rodgers said...

I loved this book and put the rest of the Arlingmeyer brothers series on my TBR list. What a great review!

Cath said...

Debbie: Thanks for dropping by. I loved this one too... so unusual. I can't remember when I last read anything like it and it's prompted me to download a couple of westerns to my Kindle to see if I like them. Plus, of course, I'll be getting the next book in this series soon.