Old Red not being on speaking terms with the alphabet, it was up to me to read ‘The Red Headed League” out loud. And I enjoyed doing so, for I found it to be a dandy little tale. But my brother took it to be a lot more than that. To him it was a new gospel.
Some folks get religion. Gustav got Sherlock Holmes.
— from Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith
It’s amazing that 125 years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created his fictional “consulting detective,” Sherlock Holmes is still as popular as ever. In the past few years, there have been two major films about Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson, and the award-winning British television series “Sherlock,”which sets the detective in modern day London, has earned a cult following. I’m hooked and can’t wait for Season 3, which is scheduled to begin production early next year.
But my favorite Sherlock-inspired work is a series of books and short stories set in the old West and featuring the Amlingmeyer brothers — Gustav, aka “Old Red,” and his younger brother Otto, aka “Big Red.” Cowboys-turned-detectives, they get caught up in one adventure after another, thanks to Old Red’s “fixation on detectiving.”
Author Steve Hockensmith, who introduced the brothers in Holmes on the Range, shared his thoughts with me about the ongoing fascination with Sherlock Holmes, plotting out his whodunits, writing Jane Austen mashups, and living the quirky life of a writer. — CG
How did you discover Sherlock Holmes?
My dad is a huge Conan Doyle fan, so when I was growing up there was always a big, fat edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes somewhere in our house. Eventually, I cracked it open and read The Hound of the Baskervilles, which I think most Sherlockians would agree is a great place to start. A few years later, when I was in high school, the Jeremy Brett adaptations started airing on PBS, and my dad and I would watch them together. So I owe it all to my old man.
How did you get the idea for a "Sherlockian" mystery with the Big Red/Old Red twist?
It was pretty mercenary. I’d been selling stories to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s annual Christmas issue, so I looked at the one other theme issue they do each year — a Holmes tribute — and thought, “Guess I oughta give that a shot.” I didn’t want to write a pastiche, though. Like a lot of writers, I’m a weird hybrid: someone with a huge ego and no self-confidence. So the idea of aping another writer’s style gives me the heebie-jeebies. On the one hand, I think, “I’m Steve Hockensmith and I write Steve Hockensmith stories, and the world should be thankful for them, dammit!” And on the other hand, there’s the little voice that whispers, “You probably couldn’t pull off a pastiche if you tried, putz.”
My solution: write about people who read about Holmes and how that experience changes their lives. Et voila — Big Red and Old Red. Ellery Queen bought the story I wrote about them, “Dear Mr. Holmes,” and the rest is history — or historical fiction, anyway.
Why did you make the brothers contemporaries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and set the whole thing in the West?
I am a history fan, as is my father. My dad’s also a huge Western nut, so I was exposed to a lot of John Wayne and John Ford and the like when I was a kid. All that was bubbling in my brain when I was asking myself, “Who are the most interesting folks I can think of who might have read about Holmes back in the day?” And it occurred to me that Holmes’s heyday, the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, also happened to be the waning days of the “Wild West.” So for all we know, real, live, rootin’-tootin’ cowboys really did read about Holmes. What would they have made of a guy like him? Once I started asking myself that, I knew I was onto something.
Why do you think Sherlock Holmes stories and all the new Holmes-inspired stuff continue to appeal to readers?
Oh, my. There are a ton of reasons! I’ll just limit myself to three. (1) Sherlock Holmes wasn’t the first master sleuth — that would be [Edgar Allen] Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin — but he was the first one we could embrace. Dupin’s not a very likeable character, whereas Holmes, for all his edges, is a great hero we can root for without reservation. (2) It’s a lot of fun watching the guy (or gal) who’s smarter than everyone else put all the pieces together. Miss Marple, Nero Wolfe, Columbo, the Mentalist, House — they’re all just Holmes in different costumes. But we all still recognize the original when we see him. (3) Holmes was doing the buddy movie thing before there was such a thing as a buddy movie. His relationship with Watson humanizes him and makes him feel real. Holmes without Watson is like a big sugar cookie without a glass of milk. It’s still pretty good, but it’s probably a little dry without that perfect complement to go with it.
What is your favorite line from Holmes on the Range, your first book about the Amlingmeyer brothers?
Hmmm...let’s see. Well, one line that comes to mind, because people mention it from time to time, is this: “Some people get religion. Gustav got Sherlock Holmes.” That says it all about the impact Holmes had on Old Red.
Are you an amateur detective? And if not, how do you figure out the mysteries that your heroes go on to solve?
I’m a pretty daydreamy, checked-out kind of guy, which makes me one of the most inobservant, forgetful people you’ll ever met. So if I were a detective...well, let’s just say a lot of evildoers would be getting away with it. But when it comes to plotting my mysteries, I’m meticulous. I don’t write a word until I know whodunnit, whydunnit, howdunnit and howgetcaught. It’s a long, painful process, but I don’t think I could tell a mystery story any other way.
You've also written some of the Jane Austen mashups — Dawn of the Dreadfuls (a prequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), comes to mind — and I wonder how that works. Do you go back and forth between writing the two genres: today, zombies, tomorrow, mysteries?
That’s exactly it. I was starting to feel a little burned out on the Holmes on the Range series a few years ago, so the zombie books came along at just the right time. I’m not the kind of writer who’d be content writing the same kind of book or story over and over, so I love being able to jump back and forth between genres and styles. That’s probably one of the reasons I’m not more successful — my “brand” is a little hard to pin down — but I gotta be me, y’know?
What's next for the Amlingmeyers? Are you done with the series?
St. Martin’s Minotaur dropped the series after five novels, so I took a break from the boys and spent some time wandering in the wilderness. Over the last year, I’ve written a couple of very different books that should be seeing the light of day soon. But now that I’ve spent some time away from Big Red and Old Red, I find that I’m ready to hook up with them again. The ebook market has opened up tremendous opportunities for someone like me — a quirky writer with a small but loyal fanbase — and I’ve been slowly, slowly, slowly dipping my toe into those waters. Later this summer, once I’ve wrapped up some revisions, I’ll be free to start on an entirely new project. At the moment, I’m thinking it’s going to be Holmes on the Range VI. We’ll see.
Is there going to be a movie — and if there is, do you get to write the script?
We had close calls with some big Hollywood names, but nothing ever panned out. So at the moment, there are no plans for a Holmes on the Range movie or TV show. I’m always hoping for that phone call from L.A., though. Obviously, Sherlock Holmes is bigger than ever, and the Western isn’t completely dead. Maybe someone in the biz will finally see the wisdom of bringing those two things together. A guy can always dream.
What question should I have asked you that I didn't? And what's the answer to that question?
Oh, that’s easy! The question you should have asked — because it’s the one writers are always hoping for — is “Do you have anything else to promote?” And it just so happens the answer is yes! I’ve put out three short story collections (one of them of Holmes on the Range stories) that people can find on Amazon and elsewhere. I’m also about to release a ripped-from-today’s-headlines horror-satire that I think is the funniest thing I’ve ever written. I’ll be ready to announce the details in early August. And of course folks can always pop by my website to see what kind of foolishness I’ve been up to lately. If any of your readers come by, they should say, “One Thing New sent me!”
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Images and photo courtesy of Steve Hockensmith