Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Holmes on the Range" by Steve Hockensmith

It's a cold February in Montana, in 1893, when two cowboys - brothers - take a job at the Bar VR ranch, a place with a very unsavory reputation.

The younger brother, "Big Red," is literate, loquacious, and a bit too fond of alcohol. His brother, "Old Red" - all of 27 years old - is illiterate, but intelligent and discerning. He desperately wants to be a detective, like the great Sherlock Holmes. As it turns out, they both find plenty of mystery and danger at the ranch.

I haven't read a western since I sampled a few Zane Grey novels when I was a kid (always being desperate for something new to read). So the setting in this mystery didn't exactly appeal to me. And, well, I don't read that many mysteries, either, since they seldom do much for me. But I've been trying out a few recommendations lately.

Holmes on the Range (2006) was entertaining right from the start. I liked the humor in the book. The banter between the $5 a week cowhands was both funny and quite plausible. (I've worked in situations that weren't all that different, even a century later.)

But I really didn't expect to like the book at much as I did. As I say, it was fun enough, right from the start. But there came a time when I picked it up to read just a little more,... and I couldn't seem to put it down.

I'm not sure why that was, but I think it's just that, the more I read, the more I liked the characters. Those two cowboy brothers, all alone in the world except for each other, just grew on me. Oh, I liked them well enough at the beginning, but by the end of the book, I found myself wondering what happens next. (And this is the first book in a series, so I guess I'll find out.)

I'd guessed most of the mystery before they figured it out, but that doesn't bother me too much. I don't really read mysteries for the mystery, but rather for the characters (which is probably why I rarely find a mystery series I really like).

And yeah, this "Sherlock Holmes on the range" thing is a gimmick, but a clever one. I think Hockensmith pulls it off because his characters are both plausible and unique, as well as being likable. And it's probably also the case that the humor makes me take the book less seriously than I otherwise might.

But don't get me wrong. This story sneaks up on you. Hockensmith actually has a lot to say - about his characters and about their society. It's not a deep book, but it's deeper than it seems at first. The humor disguises that, I think.

At any rate, I'll be reading more. There are four more books in the series, so far. Now, I'm not going to rush out and buy them all, but I will definitely continue with the next volume. For me, with mysteries, that's about as good as it gets.

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