Review | On the Wrong Track by Steve Hockensmith

On the Wrong Track

by Steve Hockensmith

Published by St. Martin's Minotaur

304 pages, 2007







Heads Will Roll

Reviewed by David Thayer

On the Wrong Track is the follow up to last year's Holmes on the Range, which introduced historical crime-fiction readers to the able Amlingmeyer brothers, Big Red and Old Red -- or Otto and Gustav, for the more formally inclined. Otto does the talking. But older brother Gustav does the thinking; he's a fan of Sherlock Holmes, a deducifier in his own right, and in Steve Hockensmith's new story the boys finally become detectives, with the badges to prove it.

The year is 1893. A gang of thieves known as the Give-'em-Hell Boys has been attacking and robbing the Southern Pacific Railroad, so the brothers -- looking to "take a stab at professional detecting" -- are recruited to ride the rails as S.P. "law enforcers" in a ceremony as terse as any you might recall from old-movie posse-raising scenes or from Mel Brooks' treatment of the classic western in Blazing Saddles. Otto (who narrates On the Wrong Track) has his doubts about the wisdom of pinning on a badge to protect the railroad -- the very institution that destroyed their family farm -- but Gus is insistent. Ponders Otto:

While sensible men set out to be bankers, lawyers, business tycoons, or president of the United States, my brother had what was, in his mind, a far loftier goal. He wanted to be a detective. More specifically, he wanted to be the detective: the late, great Sherlock Holmes. While no one was going to mistake a couple of dollar-a-day cowhands like ourselves for gentlemen deducifiers, through a combination of tenacity (mostly my brother's) and luck (mostly bad) we did manage to get ourselves hires as detectives ... of a sort.

However, our heroes aren't on the job for long, bound from Utah to San Francisco, before they discover a human head beneath the Pacific Express train's undercarriage. That this particular noggin was once the mortal property of an S.P. employee assigned to the baggage car is an early indicator of what a long strange trip the Brothers Amlingmeyer face on their way west. Hockensmith's story setup is a pretty obvious homage to Agatha Christie's classic Murder on the Orient Express -- except that Otto and Gustav aren't exactly Hercule Poirot in chaps. In fact, by the time their train enters the Nevada badlands, these well-meaning siblings have been kicked to the curb by a legendary Pinkerton detective, Burl Lockhart. The quick-tempered Lockhart has a low opinion of cowboys in general, and so he quickly takes control of the investigation, hoping to bring down the Give-'em-Hell Boys, whose reputation has been all too brightly burnished by a fervid yellow press.

The gang, though, gets a drop on the train and its resident sleuths during a stop near Carlin, Nevada. Mike Barson, the bandits' charismatic leader, issues a statement:

"Ladies and gentlemen -- may I have your undivided attention?" Barson boomed. He noticed me groggily staring up at him, and I swear he actually winked. "Though I suspect I have it already." He reached into a pocket and extracted a folded piece of paper, which he shook out with one crisp snap. "We have a statement to make!"

He cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and clutched the lapel of his coat with his free hand just like a politician on the stump.

"Two months ago, the 'outlaw' band known as 'the Give-'em Hell Boys' -- aka, us -- detained a Southern Pacific Special -- aka, the Pacific Express -- outside Carlin, Nevada -- aka, right here. Through the use of friendly persuasion, the 'gang' gained access to the train's Wells Fargo car and the special freight therein. Wells Fargo and the Southern Pacific have subsequently reported their losses in this instance at forty-four hundred dollars in cash. We would like to set the record straight. In actuality, our profit from this enterprise is beyond our ability to assess. ..."

The statement goes on to declare that the Southern Pacific directors are the real criminals here ("These unrepentant thugs have seen fit to offer bounties for our killing or capture ..."), and to put the outlaws' own price on their heads. But before Lockhart or the Amlingmeyers can stop them, Barson and his gun-toting cohorts escape back into their "sovereign kingdom, the Humboldt Mountains."

And that's only halfway through this book. Many more miles of steel track -- not to mention dead bodies -- wait ahead, as the Pacific Express labors toward the summit of the Sierra Nevada. Hockensmith has assembled here enough characters, suspects and plot twists to make both Sherlock and Dame Agatha proud.

With so much homage being paid consciously to classic western tales, amateur sleuth yarns and 19th-century "
dime novels," the author walks a very thin line between the comic and the absurd. Many of Otto's monologues are funny, and Gustav comes through with insights into the peculiar doings aboard the train. Some of the most interesting moments here, though, are to be found in observations about life in the young American republic, the power of the railroads, and how the burgeoning Fourth Estate painted a clearly romantic picture of the West for Victorian-era readers. The author's broad strokes cover a lot of territory; it would've been interesting to linger a bit in several of the places described through the train's windows.

A sudden shriek snapped my spine straight, while Gustav gave such a start his knees almost buckled. Miss Caveo, on the other hand, seemed was more startled by our reactions than the blast of the engine whistle, and she watched in a way that seemed both tickled and sympathetic as we caught our breath.

The engineer gave the whistle another long, ear-piercing toot, and the train began to slow. The woods on either side of us thinned, then disappeared, and soon we were rolling into a small town.

This Miss Caveo -- Diana Caveo -- is, by the way, a woman to watch. Dark-haired, in her mid-20s, with "an impish twist to her full lips" and surprising grit, she's a mysterious figure traveling alone (supposedly going home, after a visit to the recent Chicago World's Fair), with a secret of her own. She serves in this novel as both a budding romantic interest for Otto, and as a foil for Gustav's stumbling attempts at communicating with the opposite sex. A fine and formidable combination.

When not inciting guffaws, California writer Steve Hockensmith manages to establish enough of a plot -- complete with red herrings, gunplay and bad guys -- to keep his story on the straight and narrow, and chugging full steam ahead. On the Wrong Track is a smoother read than his debut novel, and he's also beginning to add depth to the Brothers Amlingmeyer, embedding in this book back story and family history that do no damage to its pacing. This is a fun and entertaining entry in a successful, growing series that might have Sherlock laughing -- if, of course, Sherlock did that sort of thing.
| March 2007

David Thayer is a Seattle freelance writer and author of the blog One More Bite of the Apple. He's also a published poet, his work having appeared in an anthology as well as literary magazines. Thayer has recently completed a crime novel, the beginning of a series about cops in the New York Police Department's Intelligence Division.