Elementary, my dear cowpuncher

by Erica Olsen

In his new historical mystery, Holmes on the Range, Steve Hockensmith slyly tips his hat to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose 1887 novella, A Study in Scarlet, introduced Sherlock Holmes to the world.

Both books feature a Western theme. In Doyle’s melodramatic tale, a murder in London is linked to the history of Mormon Utah. Hockensmith sets his story on the plains of eastern Montana, circa 1892, writing with tall-tale-esque humor and respect for the hard work of ranching. And his Montana, "a world of sunshine and mud," is a lot more convincing than Conan Doyle’s lurid Utah.

The detectives in this case are the Amlingmeyer brothers, red-headed cowboys in their 20s — the narrator, Otto (Big Red) and his brother Gustav (Old Red). Big Red plays Watson to Old Red, whose talent for "deducifying" is spurred by the Holmes magazine stories he reads aloud — and by the gory remains of the ranch manager, whose death-by-stampede only appears accidental. The illiterate Big Red proves that brains don’t depend on schooling, a sweet moral that his more educated brother sums up: "You ain’t just a hand. You’re a mind."

The plot, involving the aristocratic owners of the Bar VR, aka Cantlemere Ranche, may seem improbable. But English lords did own ranches (that’s why polo is played in Big Horn, Wyo., to this day) and a Russian grand duke famously went buffalo hunting with George Armstrong Custer. Like the cattalo — a buffalo/cow mix that surprises Big Red into an impromptu rodeo act — the West is a curious hybrid. So is Holmes on the Range, which blends the Western and detective genres in a cheerful entertainment.


Holmes on the Range

Steve Hockensmith

295 pages, hardcover: $22.95.

St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2006.

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