"Some folks got religion. Gustav got Sherlock Holmes."
1893. It's a bitter year in Montana. Otto and Gustav Amlingmeyer, aka Big Red and Old Red (aptly named for obvious reasons), find themselves out of a job and looking too closely at their saddles for edible components. When a man comes into the town bar wanting to hire cowhands for a distant ranch with an unfriendly reputation, Big Red puts on a smug face, happy in the knowledge that he and his brother aren't desperate enough to volunteer for that kind of a gig. But Old Red surprises him by jumping at the opportunity, naturally dragging Big Red right along with him. Whether Old Red already smelled something rotten and was thinking he might try his hand at "detectiving" or whether it was his empty stomach gnawing at him is a mystery in itself. Whatever the reason, he and Big Red find themselves in the middle of a real mystery, and Old Red relishes the chance to do a bit of "Holmesfying."
In their growing-up years, Big Red got the book learning while Old Red just seemed to have a nose for details and the horse sense to go along with it. So now, after countless evenings studying the curious ways of the famous English detective through Big Red's oral readings of the cases, Old Red finds himself a couple of grisly murders and some nasty goings-on by good old-fashioned Western villains to try his hand at straightening out.
Cowboying can be a dangerous business anytime, but at the Bar-VR it can be downright treacherous, it seems. With Old Red sticking his nose in where the foremen don't think it should be stuck, covering his backside becomes quite a chore for Big Red. But family background provides a sibling glue that holds them together like Polident and dentures.
After a few weeks out at the Bar-VR, the Amlingmeyers catch on to the fact that there resides among them a tattling rat. One of the other hands simply must be listening with traitorous ears, for the underhanded foremen keep getting wise to stuff they just weren't around to hear. And they take mighty unkindly to it, too, employing some pretty deadly methods to keep their hired help under their thumbs and out of their hair.
While you cannot improve on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, you can certainly honor his legacy with creative understudies like Hockensmith's Amlingmeyer brothers. Old Red proves himself worthy to count himself a successful student of the great Sherlock Holmes. And Big Red does a right fair job of chronicling ala Dr. Watson.
Steve Hockensmith's debut novel is a jolly good time and thoroughly satisfying from beginning to end.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on February 6, 2007