So whodunit, pardner? Who shot the cow-hand whose putrefying corpse turns up one morning in an outhouse on the VR Ranch? And was his death related to the earlier trampled-under-hoof demise of the manager of that ranch? And do those mysterious doings pertain somehow to the air of mystery that, like a cloud of dust churned up by a stampeding cattle herd, hangs over the entire spread?
The place is Montana, the year is 1893, and the heroes of this way-out-west detective yarn are a pair of Kansas cowpokes: Gustav (Old Red) and Otto (Big Red) Amlingmeyer. Orphaned brothers who roam the plains in search of work, they have lately hired on as field hands at the VR. Those brand letters stand for Victoria Regina; like many a Big Sky ranch, the VR operates under the absentee ownership of a British peer. Not long after those two killings occur, the peer and his entourage roll up in a stagecoach to Cantlemere, a slapped-together mansion that rises on a corner of VR land. It’s a a situation that calls to mind an English country-house mystery, and Old Red immediately goes scouting for clues—and for trouble. Inspired by the recently published exploits of a certain London consulting detective, he styles himself as a Holmes of the High Country. To Big Red, meanwhile, falls the task of narrating the nasty scrapes and narrow escapes that ensue.
The byplay between the brothers Amlingmeyer smacks more of Abbott and Costello than it does of Holmes and Watson, and parts of their story bend credulity farther than credulity should go. (The notion that Old Red, so adept at “deducifyin’,” would remain illiterate hardly rings true.) Yet Hockensmith writes with a gusto that carries the reader along for an occasionally bumpy ride: The voice of Big Red combines the dead-eyed aim of a gunfighter with a Westerner’s tall-tale wit. Likewise, the plot that Hockensmith spins out proves to be as taut and as sure as a well-thrown lasso.