Western novels don’t rank high on my to-read list. They’re too reliable. I can seek out the glamour of fiction debuts, bestsellers, etc,. knowing that Westerns (at least the ones that aren’t checked out by more appreciative readers) will always be there for me. I’ve largely taken for granted the traits that characterize these novels–strong narration, sense of place, elemental struggles.
But now Steve Hockensmith has roped me in as a Reader of Westerns. Reviews of his Western/mystery series (“hilarious”, “vivid images”, “filled with historical atmosphere”) lured me to search for the first one. The library didn’t have Holmes on the Range (nominated for an Edgar Award) but it has now been ordered and should arrive soon. Book #2, On the Wrong Track, was checked out by a discerning library patron, so I located #3, The Black Dove.
Here’s the premise: It’s the 1890s, and brothers Gustav and Otto Amlingmeyer (alias “Old Red” and “Big Red”) are vainly attempting to get themselves hired on as detectives. They’ve worked as cowboys/drovers; then that gig with the Southern Pacific Railroad didn’t turn out well–but that’s another story. When they are unexpectedly reunited with a mysterious–not to mention beautiful–lady from their past and their old friend Dr. Chan starts behaving peculiarly, they are obliged to employ “deducifying” skills they didn’t even know they possessed.
Did I mention that Gus and Otto are avid fans of Sherlock Holmes and have personas that mirror Holmes and Watson? The San Francisco/Chinatown setting contributes lots of local color, quirky characters, and some truly comic situations. The most memorable feature in this enjoyable yarn is the Otto’s folksy play-by-play narration. Candid to a fault, he alternates between short-sightedness and surprising emotional sensitivity. The contrast between his gossipy extroversion and Gus’ uncommunicative reserve (obviously signifying hidden depths) enlivens the story even more than the quest for the Black Dove.
So, I’ve been totin’ around The Black Dove for several days now. But I’m on my way to check it in so that you can have a turn. Hockensmith’s #4, The Crack in the Lens, was recently purchased for the library’s collection, but it’s checked out. No surprise there.