Though now a full blown series of novels that recently saw its fifth entry, World’s Greatest Sleuth!, author Steve Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range series got its start as short stories appearing in magazines such as Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Now for the first time all seven stories which have featured the Amlingmeyer brothers, cowboys turned detectives in late 1890’s America, are available in one collection: Dear Mr. Holmes: Seven Holmes on the Range Mysteries.
The opening story of the collection, Dear Mr. Holmes, introduces readers to brothers Otto “Big Red” and Gustav “Old Red” Amlingmeyer. While out on a cattle drive, Otto entertains his fellow cowboys in the evenings by telling stories or reading from magazines. The Amlingmeyers lives change forever the night Otto reads a story called “The Red-Headed League” to the group.
Gustav is immediately captivated by the story’s lead character, some English bloke named Sherlock Holmes, and becomes obsessed with the idea of “detectin’ and deducifyin'” (“Some folks get religion. Gustav got Sherlock Holmes.”). When two of their fellow cowboys are murdered one night Gustav gets to put the lessons he’s learned from Mr. Holmes to the test sooner than anticipated as the Amlingmeyers attempt to solve the killings. And with that, Gustav “Holmes of the Range” Amlingmeyer is born.
All the stories in the collection are told by Otto in the form of letters to editors of various magazines in which he, playing the Watson role, records and recounts the Amlingmeyers’ adventures in story form in hopes of selling them. Other stories in the collection include:
Gustav Amlingmeyer, Holmes of the Range puts a serious hitch in the giddyap of the brothers’ attempt at owning a cafe when an obnoxious customer is killed, apparently as a result of poison, while eating at their establishment. The brothers have to figure out who did it before they’re run out of town on a rail…or worse.
Wolves In Winter come in two varieties in this short, literal and figurative. When a snowstorm catches the Amlingmeyers just as night is falling and with no place to hole up in sight they think matters can’t get much worse. That is until a pack of hungry wolves descends upon them and their horses. When a cabin looms in the distance the brothers make a mad dash for safety and barely make it one step ahead of the wolves, only to find wolves of a two-legged variety already inside.
Dear Dr. Watson marks the brothers’ first official employment as detectives. Suffice it to say that between being laughed at by Pinkerton Detectives, attacked by a mad chihuahua, and discovering their new employer isn’t quite who they thought he was their first official job is something less than the career starter Gustav had hoped for.
The Water Indian finds the Amlingmeyers in Bear Lake Valley, Utah, and while the ancient Indian water spirit supposedly in the area killing the unwary may or may not be real, there’s no denying the town they happen upon has dwindled to a population of just one family. When they are invited to stay with the family, which includes two unmarried daughters close in age to the twenty-something brothers, it seems like an offer too good to be true. Why has this family stayed when all the others have left or disappeared? Gustav is determined to get to the bottom of things.
The Devil’s Acre finds Otto front and center having to play the Sherlock role usually filled by Gustav. Of course since it’s Gustav’s disappearance he is investigating the experience is a bit more stressful than he’d have preferred for his first case as lead deducifier. The Devil’s Acre also features a particularly wonderful example of Hockensmith’s sense of humor, in which the reader gets to have fun filling in the blanks where Otto has censored the profanity in his recounting of the tale. They start out relatively obvious and straightforward, but become increasingly hilarious and open to interpretation. In fact, I’d love to hear everyone’s best guess on the following:
“Alright, you stupid q___-b_______ z__________s,” I growled, coming to my feet. “You asked for it.” The hoodlums froze, looking confused. Apparently, they’d never been called q___-b_______ z__________s before.
Seriously, any guesses? Leave ’em in the comments below.
Greeting from Purgatory! puts Big Red and Old Red back on a train following their decidedly disastrous stint as detectives for the Southern Pacific railway in On the Wrong Track. Given Old Red’s notorious motion sickness, the brothers’ longstanding hatred of all railway companies, and recent less than stellar stint as employees for the same company whose train they find themselves forced to use are the Amlingmeyers headed for purgatory, or hell? One thing’s for sure, the armed bandits who attack the train aren’t going to help matters.
The first couple of stories in Dear Mr. Holmes: Seven Holmes on the Range Mysteries occur prior to the first Holmes on the Range novel, with the others taking place “between” the adventures that occur in subsequent novels. All of them, however, stand on their own and having read the novels is not required (though you really should). Chances are even if you’re a dedicated fan of the series you’ve never read all seven of these stories, and even if you have here’s your chance to have them all collected in one place. And if you’ve never read any of the Holmes on the Range books, this is the perfect opportunity to meet the Amlingmeyers and get your feet wet.
PS – As always, be sure to read the copyright page. Yes, the copyright page. Hockensmith’s so funny he can make even the normally boring legal stuff entertaining.