Steve Hockensmith, On the Wrong Track: A Holmes on the Range Mystery
© Steve Hockensmith 2007
© Steve Hockensmith 2007
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.