Thursday, March 21, 2019

Steve Hockensmith, On the Wrong Track: A Holmes on the Range Mystery

Steve Hockensmith, On the Wrong Track: A Holmes on the Range Mystery
© Steve Hockensmith 2007
ISBN 978-1-53994-8629

I was looking through my TBR mountain the other day, and unearthed On the Wrong Track.  Now, I would have sworn I had read all of the “Holmes on the Range” books, but the cover did not look familiar, so I thought I’d read the first few pages to remind myself of the story.  But it was not familiar at all.  I was puzzled.  I considered dropping Parnell Hall a note asking him if The Puzzle Lady could help me, but decided just to read the damn book instead.  Which was a good decision, because it is a winner.

Otto (Big Red) Amlingmeyer and his (older) brother Gustav (Old Red) have been cowboys.  Otto, the younger, bigger, and literate one of the pair, has been reading mystery stories (and many of them featuring a hawk-featured gentleman in London) to Gustav.  And, along the way, they have run into some mysteries, and Gustav has solved them (with some assistance from Otto—who has been writing their adventures u with a hope of becoming Gustav’s Watson).  Now, Gustav decides to try to become a detective rather than a cowboy, and they find themselves with a recommendation from the legendary Burl Lockhart (and far from sober).  Unfortunately, from Otto’s perspective, they have been recommended to the Southern Pacific Railroad, and neither of them has a warm place in their hearts for railroads in general.

Nonetheless, Gustav decides that they should take advantage, and they find themselves on a train, headed for California.  Along with them is a rich assortment of passengers, including a traveling salesman, a lovely young woman, a widow with twin sons, an older woman who appears to be something of a card shark, a Chinese doctor (which creates some consternation among the passengers,, and…Burl Lockhart.  The train’s crew is equally diverse—a nasty conductor, a dedicated baggage car man, and a cheeky news agent/concessionaire (“butcher), a black porter (whom Otto and Gustav have to learn to tip, this being their first time on a train).

On the outside is a gang of outlaws who have made a habit of robbing Southern Pacific trains.

And things become a bit difficult when Otto discovers that Gustav can’t handle riding on trains—motion sickness ensues, and while they are on platform of one of the cars, a head—and then a body—emerge from under the train.  They pull the emergency brake cord, and thus begins the investigation.  (The first discovery is that the dead man is a crew member; the second is the presence of a hobo—the King of the Hoboes—who has been riding on the underside of one of the cars.)  Oh, and a very large, very unhappy snake.

It’s quite a cast, and the nature of the problem becomes more and more complex the more Gustav works to solve the mystery. 

One of the things I know something about from my professional live (I’m an economist with a teaching and research interest in US economic history) is railroads in the 19th century—both as a means of transportation and shipping, and as benefactors or exploiters of farmers )and various other producers) and passengers.  And I think Hockensmith has done his research on all of those things, and, from what I know, he has also done a first-rate job of describing the experience of being a passenger on a train in the late 19th century.  And he does all that part of the story in an entertaining way.

And the mystery is also very well done.  And very complicated.  Otto, who’s narrating this (and as he makes clear, he intends this tale to get published—eventually, and if they survive), lets us see not only how Gustav proceeds, but also the false starts, red herrings, and setbacks of the investigation.  The two main characters are vivid, cantankerous, and very, very good company.  I am actually somewhat disturbed with myself to have discovered On the Wrong Track 12 years after its original publication and at least 5 or 6 years after I first discovered Hockensmith and the world of the Amlingmeyer brothers.  If you haven’t yet made their acquaintance, today—or maybe tomorrow—would be a good time to start.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Christopher Huang, A Gentleman’s Murder

Christopher Huang, A Gentleman’s Murder
Inkshares, Inc. 2018
© Christopher Huang 2018
ISBN 978-1-942645-95-5

In the aftermath of the Great War (not yet known as World War I), Eric Peterkin finds himself drawn into investigating the murder of Albert Benson.  Unlike the other members of the Britannica Club (of which one of Eric’s forbears was a founder), Benson had not served in the military; a conscientious objector, he had served as a stretcher-bearer in the war (and his election to membership was somewhat controversial).  Benson died after being more-or-less talked into a wager with (ex-Captain) Mortimer Wolfe—Wolfe claimed he could break into any of the safe deposit boxes that were available to the club members, and undertook to break into Benson’s.

Eric is also something of an outsider in the Britannica, as his father had married a Chinese woman; his family background causes some (including some members of the Britannica) to regard him as somewhat less than English.  And he has reason to think that the detective (Parker) in charge of the murder investigation may be concealing evidence.

Not surprisingly, the motive for Benson’s murder will be found in the past, 6 years before (in 1918), at what was a convalescent hospital for casualties of the war, and in the disappearance (and death) of Emily Wang (also half-English and half-Chinese, and a qualified nurse).  Emily was a cousin of the wife of the current president of the Britannica, and her death actually is discovered during the investigation of Benson’s murder.

The narrative becomes quite complex, and whatever official investigation is going on gets a little lost; we are focused on Eric’s attempts (ultimately successful) to find the truth.  It’s a quest that culminated in gathering of all the people involved, in one way or another—a classic gathering that would not be out of place in an Agatha Christie mystery.  And this scene is very well done.

All the characters had their points of interest (although I never quite figured out what function (other than being a sort-of-Watson) Eric’s friend Avery Ferrett actually played.  (He’s the least well-developed character in the book.)

Huang has obviously done his research; based on my knowledge of the Great War and its aftermath and of the conditions in London after the war.  The setting, the still powerful consequences of the war, and the London fog, are all vividly conveyed.  I did find a couple of things a bit difficult to accept—Eric’s last name being the one that nagged at me most, the other a scene at the Britannica after the mystery has been solved.  But overall the story works, the characters work, the setting works.  I do hope that there is more to follow.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Bill Crider, We'll Always Have Murder

Bill Crider, We’ll Always Have Murder
iBooks Inc. 2001
© Bogart, Inc. 2001
ISBN  07434-7505-4
Available in paperback (ISBN-13: 978-0743492966
Available from used booksellers

Terry Scott is a free-lance PI in port-war Hollywood; his principal clients are in the movie business (and he has particular ties to Warner Bros.), with the intent of keeping people in the business out of the spotlight when they might have committed an indiscretion.  He’s called to Jack Warner’s office where he finds Warner—and Humphrey Bogart.  It seems someone has tried to blackmail Bogie.  And Scott’s assignment is to put an end to it.  As it happens, the blackmailer is another PI Frank Burleson (whom Scott knows, and has no use for).  His job is to put an end to the blackmail attempt.

He and Bogart find, when they arrive at Burleson’s seedy house, that any problems they might have with Burleson have been attended to—he’s dead.  And a pistol belonging to Bogart is next to the body.  Scott gets Bogart to leave—and also gets him not to take the gun—shortly before the cops, in the persons of Lt. Congreve and Officer Garton (not LA’s finest) arrive.  Now Scott has two objectives—handle the blackmail scheme (because there’s no assurance that it ended with Burleson’s death) and keep Bogart from being arrested for murder.

Much of his investigation centers on a low-rent studio (Superior Pictures) that specializes in knockoffs of other studios’ movies and at Charlie O’s casino.  Bogart, for reasons best known to himself, gets involved in the investigation as well.  And it turns into a fairly difficult—and dangerous—undertaking.

Crider is best known for his Dan Rhodes mysteries, set in contemporary small-town Texas.  Here, he shows that he was also up to the task of re-creating a plausible Hollywood setting as well.  And if Scott gets beaten up perhaps a little more than seems plausible, then you should re-read some of Raymond Chandler’s books, in which Marlowe’s survival seems to be something of an afterthought.  Crider also does an excellent job with Bogart, and if the character as presented seems to owe a lot to his movie persona, then we should remember that he is, in a very real sense, playing a role here—the role of Humphrey Bogart tough-guy actor who won’t be pushed around.

When we get to the resolution (there’s more violence, a difficult encounter with the cops, a trip to a lesbian night club, adventures on the set of a Superior movie, Scott’s recurring dreams of Rita Hayworth, and more), Crider handles the resolution quite well.  In a relatively brief 220 pages, we get quite a ride and quite a good mystery.  I’ve always been sorry that Crider did not re-visit Terry Scott (but given the copyright information, I also suspect he did not own the character).  Just an excellent piece of work by a truly professional writer.

Terence Faherty, Come Back Dead

Terence Faherty, Come Back Dead
Simon & Schuster, 1997
© Terence Faherty 1997
ISBN 978-068483-0841
(Out of print; available as an ebook and from used booksellers)

The second book in the series featuring Scott Elliott, who works for Paddy Maguire and his Hollywood Security Agency, helping the studios contain scandals and protect their interests in a number of ways.  The current issue involves Carson Drury, one-time wunderkind, whose first film (after Broadway and radio triumphs) First American was universally hailed as a masterpiece.  Hi second outing, however, The Imperial Albertsons, was completed after Drury was no longer associated with the studio (RKO), with a completely new ending.  Drury has, 10 years later (in 1955), decided to try to return the film to his original vision—and it appears someone is sabotaging the project.

If this sounds awfully familiar, it’s because Carson Drury is a thinly (including his physique) disguised Orson Welles, First American is a stand-in for Citizen Kane, and The Imperial Albertsons might be better known as The Magnificent Ambersons.  Not that Welles seems ever to have attempted to redo that one.  For me, one of the weaknesses of the book is its too obvious use of Welles and his movies.  Despite which it is a well-done, sometimes remarkable mystery.

Beginning in Hollywood, we are quickly transported to a smallish town in east north central Indiana, the home of one of the people financing Drury’s project (Gilbert Traynor), whose family, whose family-owned company once produced a line of expensive cars and now is a parts supplier.  Gilbert is looking for a way to do something somewhat more glamorous.  Faherty does an excellent job of developing the Indiana setting (as he should—He’s an Indiana native and still lives in Indiana.

One of the treats for me was attempting to pick out the “real” places that might be the inspirations for the fictional locations.  A good deal of early (1900 through the 1920s) auto production in the US was in fact located in Indiana.  (A list, with links can be found here:  In the relevant part of the state, auto manufacturers flourished for a time in Kokomo, Anderson, and Marion.  Part of the action in the book occurs in Middletown—and Muncie, Indiana, was the site of a very famous sociological study published (in 1959) under the title Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture.  Some of the events in the book occur in Indianapolis and make use of actual settings, under their actual names (Butler University, for example, and its (no longer in existence) outdoor theater.[1]

But back to the story.  Even in Indiana, it appears that someone is still trying to sabotage the film.  The Klan seems to have taken a dislike to Drury (and, in the 1920s, and even later, the Klan was a force in Indiana; it was especially strong in Marion).  Drury’s improvised speech responding to the Klan is a brilliant scene.  Drury’s right-hand man is murdered.  And the investigation of the murder threatens to entangle Elliott and hamper efforts to make progress on the file.  Throughout, the aftermath of World War II continues to cast a shadow.  And there is another murder.  Elliott feels obligated to resolve the mysteries (and Maguire arrives to reinforce his efforts).  Eventually, after a number of false starts and some trips down the wrong path, Elliott, Maguire, and the local law enforcement people find their way to the solution.  If that solution is a bit too heavily laden with psychological trauma for my taste, it works within the events of the story and the behavior and characters of the story.  And Faherty does a brilliant job of evoking both the times and the places.  Well worth the time you could spend with Elliott and Maguire—and Carson Drury. [2]

[1] Where, in the 1960s, on an incredibly hot July night, my family saw Yul Byrynner in The King and I.

[2] This is worth only a footnote.  We learn that Elliott’s full name is Thomas Scott Elliott, which immediately made me think of Thomas Stearns Eliot…which I personally found both interesting and amusing.