Today we’ve got a change of pace for you: an interview with Steve Hockensmith, creator of the “Holmes on the Range” mystery/Westerns. And Steve’s not the only special guest here, because he’s being interviewed by one of the stars of his series, Otto “Big Red” Amlingmeyer. Big Red and his brother Gustav (a.k.a. “Old Red”) are former cowboys who roam the 19th century West solving mysteries in the style of their hero, Sherlock Holmes. They’ve starred in five novels, the latest of which, World’s Greatest Sleuth!, came out January 18. We supplied Big Red with a list of questions for Steve but left it up to him to conduct the interview as he pleased.
Big Red: Let’s see. “When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?” it says here.
Hockensmith: Oh, that’s something I always knew. I started creating my own little comic books and fiction magazines around the time I was 11, and in high school I got serious about journalism, which eventually became my college major and my first career. But I didn’t try to sell fiction professionally until --
Big Red: [flutters eyelids, feigns snoring]
Hockensmith: Hey, you asked.
Big Red: Yeah. To be polite. If I’d known your answer was going to be so danged boring, though, I would’ve brought my bedroll with me.
Hockensmith: Why don’t you just move on to the next question then?
Big Red: Alrighty. Let’s see. “Did anyone encourage you to be a writer, and if so…?” You know what? I’m skipping that one.
Big Red: I want to save it for tonight. In case I have trouble falling asleep. I figure your answer’d have me sawing logs within seconds.
Hockensmith: Look, if you’re just going to be insulting, we’ll find someone else to --
Big Red: Wait wait wait, now! Hold on! This next question I want to ask you in all seriousness, alright? I would really, truly like to hear your answer.
Hockensmith: [warily] O.K.
Big Red: “Which writers influence you?”
Hockensmith: [opens mouth]
Big Red: Cuz I know what better be the first name outta your mouth.
Hockensmith: [muttering under breath] Here we go.
Big Red: I do all the work Watsoning for my brother, writing up our adventures and sending ’em off to be published. But then when they end up in print, somehow they’ve got your name on ’em. And me -- I ain’t the author anymore. Oh, no! I’m just the narrator.
Hockensmith: We’ve been through this before. You’re fictional.
Big Red: You remember how “fictional” it feels when my boot meets your backside?
Hockensmith: The writer who has influenced me most is the great Otto Amlingmeyer! He makes Mark Twain and William Shakespeare look like half-witted children scribbling on the sidewalk with chalk! I myself only know the alphabet up to j! I am nothing! Otto Amlingmeyer is like unto a god! All hail Otto! I can but bow down before him and lick his boots!
Big Red: Please don’t lick my boots.
Hockensmith: Well, are you satisfied now? Was that effusive enough for you?
Big Red: [muses] Yes. Next question --
Hockensmith: Thank god.
Big Red: “How much importance do you place on research?”
Hockensmith: You’re going to let me answer? Without interrupting?
Big Red: Absolutely. I said my piece.
Hockensmith: O.K., then. Good. So. Research. I place a lot of importance on it, actually. It’s always the second step in the process for me. The first is deciding on a setting. Once I’ve got that, I do a ton of research, and the plot grows out of what I learn. I’ll give you an example. While sifting through background material for my first novel, Holmes on the Range, I learned that European aristocracy once owned more than half the range land in the West. That led to a brainstorm: What if some of those hoity-toity titled types came out to Montana to inspect their property…and what if they’d known Sherlock Holmes? That allowed me to weave elements from the Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Noble Bachelor” into my own story set on a cattle ranch. The latest book, World’s Greatest Sleuth!, takes place at the Columbian Exposition -- the 1893 world’s fair in Chicago -- and that required weeks and weeks of reading and web-surfing to get a handle on, because the setting is so specific and so spectacular. It was a big challenge to bring that to life. But a fun challenge.
Big Red: You wanna know how I do research?
Hockensmith: I can guess.
Big Red: I remember. No reading or “web-smurfing” needed. Cuz, you know, it happened to me. That comes in right handy when spinning a yarn. You got no call to put your brand on someone else’s stories that way.
Hockensmith: Could we get to the next question, please?
Big Red: What? You’re not enjoying yourself?
Hockensmith: [through gritted teeth] I’m having a ball.
Big Red: Me, too! Now let’s see -- here’s a good one. “You seem to find humour in many situations. Are there any themes you’d avoid including in your stories as you don’t think they suit a humorous approach?”
Hockensmith: That is a good question. I guess there are a few subjects that would be hard to handle with a light touch. In the “Holmes on the Range” series, I’ve acknowledged the pervasiveness of casual racism in 19th century society, and in the first book the “n word” even gets bandied about a couple times. That really pissed some readers off, and even though I was just trying to be true to the times I’d think twice about using such language again. And certainly there’s nothing funny about lynchings or the treatment of Native Americans. Prostitution plays an important role in both the third and fourth books, and I tried to handle that in a humane, heartfelt way, too. Saloon “chippies” are often thrown in as simple props or clichés, and I didn’t want to do that. Those women endured horrific abuse and degradation, and that shaded how I wrote the prostitute characters in my books. I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve, though. There’s no preaching. First and foremost, the books are supposed to be fun.
Big Red: Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Hockensmith: Thank you.
Big Red: In fact, it makes me wonder if I did say all that somewhere. I’m not entirely certain you could come up with it yourself.
Big Red: Moving on. “How many short stories are there featuring the Amlingmeyer brothers, and where can they be found?”
Hockensmith: There have been seven short stories about the guys. Six of them originally appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and the seventh was in the recent anthology Ghost Towns. The first, “Dear Mr. Holmes,” is available as a free download on my website. Here’s a link. Two of the others have appeared in year-end “best of” collections: “Gustav Amlingmeyer, Holmes of the Range” was in Wolf Woman Bay and 9 More of the Finest Crime and Mystery Novellas of the Year, while “The Devil’s Acre” was reprinted in Between the Dark and the Daylight and 27 More of the Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year. One of these days, I’m going to do an ebook collecting all seven stories, but I can’t say when I’ll get around to it.
Big Red: An “ebook”?
Hockensmith: Yeah. It’s…you know, maybe we’d better just move along to the next question.
Big Red: [yawns] Fine by me. That last answer of yours made me awful drowsy again, and I’d sure like to get some coffee.
Hockensmith: [glowers, spins hands in the air]
Big Red: “Some of the ‘Holmes on the Range’ book covers seem to portray them as Westerns and others seem to give them the look of historical crime novels. Why the difference?”
Hockensmith: There are two things at work there. (1) You’ve got the marketing department trying to figure out how the heck to sell these things. (2) Two of the books -- The Black Dove and World’s Greatest Sleuth! -- take place in big cities, so the Western approach wouldn’t have been appropriate. The other three books are much more Westerny: Holmes on the Range takes place on a Montana ranch, On the Wrong Track is set on a train travelling through the Sierra Nevadas and The Crack in the Lens takes place in the Texas Hill Country. First and foremost, though, all the books are historical mysteries. That’s their structure. Collecting clues and solving puzzles is what they’re about. There just happens to be enough Old West flavor and action to qualify most of them as Westerns, too.
Big Red: I like to think Old Red and I West-up any place we happen to go.
Hockensmith: That’s true. The cowboy outlook comes through no matter what setting you’re in.
Big Red: Alright, last question or I’m gonna have to nail my eyelids open.
Hockensmith: [rolls eyes] Yeah, it’s been a delight chatting with you, too.
Big Red: “Are you a fan of Westerns, and if so do you have any favourites in books and films?”
Hockensmith: Oh, yeah! I love a good Western. My dad’s to thank for that. When I was a kid, if there was a Western on TV, dad was watching it. (He’s also a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, so he can take credit for my whole publishing career.) My favorite Western films are probably Little Big Man and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but I’m also very, very fond of the more traditional Westerns that were coming out of Hollywood in the ’50s and ’60s. Rio Bravo, Shane, The Big Country, The Tall T, Bend of the River, Ride the High Country -- those are all favorites of mine. I’m not as well-versed in Western books, but Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man had a huge impact on me, and I recently read and loved Charles Portis’s True Grit. (I think both film versions are pretty great, as well.) Cottonwood, by the noir writer Scott Phillips, is a wonderfully odd gothic Western, and of course Elmore Leonard’s Western books are dynamite. I’ve also sampled Westerns by American crime writers like Ed Gorman, Bill Crider, Bill Pronzini, Loren Estleman and Bob Randisi, and it’s all fun stuff indeed. Unfortunately, I read really slowly, so I haven’t sampled any genre as widely as I’d like. But one day I hope to --
Big Red: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Hockensmith: Alright, I’m leaving.