Saturday, March 03, 2012

Riding the Rails

If I were not before the bar
Something else I’d like to be
If I were not a barr-is-ter
An engine driver me!
John Cleese, Monty Python’s Flying Circus

The last time we saw Gustav “Old Red” Amlingmeyer and his brother, Otto “Big Red” Amlingmeyer, they had just solved a major mystery on a ranch, which got started with the apparently-accidental death of a supervisor. All this was chronicled in the wonderful book Holmes on the Range, a book where elements of a classic Western went toe-to-toe with elements of a classic mystery. The result was not one genre beating out the other, but a solid blend of the two. Now we’re back with On the Wrong Track.

The time is 1893 and Old Red has got it in mind to become a Pinkerton agent. Unfortunately, he and his brother go from town to town only to meet with the same scepticism and mockery. But at long last they seem to have gotten their lucky break—sort of. See, it’s complicated, but as cowboys, Big Red and Old Red are none too fond of the railway companies. So their feelings are somewhat mixed when they at long last get hired as detectives for the Southern Pacific Railway company. It’s particularly surprising how insistent Old Red is on the job—he even sells their horses!—since he’d rather ride the trail than the railway even if trains could get him to his destination in a fraction of the time.

But be that as it may, Old Red is determined to follow his dream and the footsteps of the (supposedly-late), great Sherlock Holmes. He wants to be a deducifier, and to tell the truth, he’s pretty darn good at it. (After all, he’s already solved one mystery before now.) Big Red trudges along as the semi-unwilling chronicler, the Watson. Before long, the brothers are launched head-first into a baffling mystery that involves a notorious pair of railway thieves who hijack the train. There’s a Chinese doctor who behaves strangely, a legendary Western hero reduced to an alcoholic wreck, and a lovely young lady who wouldn’t be altogether displeased if she got to know Big Red a bit more… intimately, shall we say?

In general, this book is a wonderful read, and that is again due to the fabulous characters. The Amlingmeyers are quite simply some of the most delightful characters you’ll ever come across. This series does a nice job parodying the original Holmes tales while giving homage to them, and it’s all done quite respectfully. There are no spiteful jokes at Holmes’ expense, and in fact, Holmes is a real person in this universe, so at this point in time, he’s technically dead (don’t you remember the Reichenbach fall?). While Old Red doesn’t quite believe that Holmes is dead, Big Red thinks his brother is just acting like a child who refuses to believe that Santa is not real. (Gosh, I hope there aren’t any children reading this.)

But—and here we come to the rub—there is a major problem with this book, especially in comparison with its predecessor. Frankly, the mystery elements and the Western elements are forced to compete with each other. They formed a lovely, harmonious mix in Holmes on the Range. Here they are jostling each other for more screen time. We get long stretches of questioning and detection and those are offset by long stretches where the Western/adventure aspects take over the story. Nowhere is this as apparent as in the finale. The finale in Holmes on the Range felt inevitable—the tension was slowly ratcheted tighter and tighter until it seemed that the only way out was a proper, old-fashioned, mano-a-mano shootout. That’s not the case here. There’s no buildup, no tense anticipation. The ending is sprung out at you out of nowhere. It’s rather like:

Big Red: Wow, Didit, I can’t believe I’m investigating this most mysterious business completely alone with you!
Didit: Yeah… about that. [pulls out gun]
Big Red: Jesus, Didit! You scared me like a hillbilly in a hippo’s stomach! My God! I’m glad you’re not the killer or my pants would smell worse than a horse in a hobo’s pants!
Didit: Do I have to explain everything to you?
Big Red: Jesus! You mean you’re the killer?
Didit: Yup.
Big Red: I should have known! Your name should have been the clue! That can only mean one thing… cue the long-winded action scene!

Unfortunately, the final action scene, while rather fun, does get long-winded by the end and the book simply loses steam. There are way too many scenes after this action scene to reveal some more undercurrents that we could have done without, and the end result is the same: the brothers end up riding off into the sunset.

It’s unfortunate, but it is rendered even weaker by the mystery itself, which frankly speaking is just unimpressive. I could never understand why nobody ever thought to suspect Didit. He (Or is it a she? I’ll go with the masculine.) is just… such an obvious potential suspect. I came to the conclusion that Didit did it without even once looking at the clues Old Red explains at the end. The character simply has a big “GUILTY” sign painted right over every one of his actions.

All this criticism might make you think that I hated the book, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is a weak mystery but a very enjoyable read, and that’s mainly due to the wonderful main characters and the Holmesian inspiration. This book could have benefited with a better solution and a better balance between the Western elements and the mystery elements. It’s a decent read as is, but it doesn’t really measure up to the first instalment in the series.


  1. You always run the risk, when mixing the compounds of two or more genres, that the different elements begin to vie with one another for sway or even drown the other out. The first review you (and the Doc) posted of this series was very enticing, but this one seems to be The Robots of Dawn to its predecessors The Caves of Steel (i.e. not bad, but the balance is gone).

    And now that this blog is on the subject of western-mystery hybrids: have you been able to track down a copy of that western impossible crime novel?

  2. I have placed it on Interlibrary Loan-- it's taken a while, so I hope the book hasn't been lost at its home bracnh!