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Steve Hockensmith has written two very different mystery series that have garnered awards as well as a loyal fan base.
In the first, two cowboy brothers roam the wild West of the 1890s, saddled up Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson amidst the tumbleweed, solving murders as they ride the range.
In the second, a reformed con artist inherits her mother’s tarot card salon and finds lots of dirty secrets come with the bequest.
You can listen on the link above or on iTunes or Stitcher.
Keep reading to hear what inspired Steve to set Sherlock Holmes in the West and why he like mysteries more than thrillers.
Read on for full show notes and a transcript of the conversation.
Show Notes Summary
In this interview you’ll discover:
When Steve first decided the detective Sherlock Holmes was his buddy.
What inspired his idea of a Gustav as a cowboy Sherlock Holmes.
Why – like Bruce S – he loves working class heroes.
The reason his “cosy” mysteries aren’t all that cosy.
Why he enjoys mysteries more than thrillers.
Steve’s binge reading habits: youthful embarrassments and what’s exciting him now.
For more detail, a full transcript follows: A “close as” rendering of our full conversation.
Steve can be found at www.stevehockensmith.com
And on Facebook and Twitter
And now to Steve: Hello there Steve, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
In your series Holmes on the Range you put two fairly hard scrabble cowboy brothers with a tragic past into slapstick situations where they manage to keep their heads when all around them are losing theirs. Gustav’s obsession for the great detective’s deductive reasoning methods shines through all the fun and games and I’m wondering . . .
Tell me, was there ONCE UPON A TIME when you as a young boy or young man just loved Sherlock Holmes?
Oh yes absolutely. I mean there was a time when I didn’t love Sherlock Holmes, which didn’t mean I hated him. He was always there in the background, I would encounter him in pop culture, and he seemed fine, but it wasn’t until I got to the age of about 12 that I realised my Dad was a very big Sherlock Holmes fan.
I guess maybe it’s not until you’re about 12 years old that you pay attention to what your parents think about anything other than when it’s time to come in and eat. So I became aware of the fact that my Dad had this book on his mantelpiece The Complete Sherlock Holmes although you couldn’t read the spine when it was up on the shelf because he read it every year and it was taped together with duct tape.
So it was like “Oh look there’s a Sherlock Holmes book there and Dad is really into it.” I think I had a book report to do for class and it was one of those book reports where you got to read whatever you wanted. I pulled down the about to fall apart Sherlock Holmes and read The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is a great place to start.
When I got a little older the Jeremy Brett Granada adaptation came on TV so I felt I knew Sherlock Holmes but those shows cemented it for me. They made me feel like “I know who this guy is, I really like this guy, he is a buddy of mine,” and its been like that ever since.
Jenny: How did it the idea for the Holmes On The Range books come about?
Steve: It came about in one walk through the woods with my wife of an hour or so – I’m a pretty bad hiker so it mightn’t have even been an hour – so maybe 55 minutes that I was out hiking in beautiful woods on Mount Tamalpais in Marin County in California where we were living at the time,
There were not a lot of cars or buildings or planes around, so you had room to free up your mind and think. My mind always drifts back to the past and to wonder what were people thinking 100 years ago or 400 years ago walking through this very area.
Also, there was one thing that was on my mind, there is a magazine over here, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and I had started selling them short stories and I was trying to think of an idea for the next story I was going to write for them. It just so happens they do a Sherlock Holmes tribute issue every year
Being in the West, thinking about the past, and thinking about the fact that Sherlock Holmes stories, even though they are so very identified with Victorian Edwardian London, that time period of the late 19th century really overlaps with what we think of as the Wild West.
So in that one period of time of American history – a period that a lot of people like like my Dad and me loved – the Wild West – and that period of time that people also love so dearly -Victorian London – they were contemporaneous, they were at the same time
That hit me pretty hard. So people in the old West could have been reading about Sherlock Holmes. So if you are in a Wild West kind of setting and along comes this magazine about this guy Sherlock Holmes and these amazing things he’s doing, how are you going to react to that how are you going to apply what he does to your own world.
So that led me to say “OK, someone in the Wild West is going to try to be like Sherlock Holmes. Who is the most fun and interesting person we can make a Sherlock Holmes fan?” Well it’s got to be a cowboy. How could it be anyone else really?
And then there’s a very good reason why Holmes has his Watson. The story can’t all just happen in Holmes’ head. When Conan Doyle was writing it, you need a Watson who is observing Holmes who is putting pieces together at the same time as the reader. So there should be a Holmes and a Watson. I guess its going to be another cowboy – and what reason could they have for sticking together? l know, I’ll make them brothers
When I came down off the mountain it was all there – two cowboy brothers read about Sherlock Holmes. One decides he wants to be Holmes and the other is “Chuu waa what?”and off we go.
Jenny: What do you like best about Otto and Gustav, his brother?
Steve: I have one brother, an older brother, and he and I are very similar in some ways and also very different in others, so it felt quite natural to write about two brothers and to write about them from the younger brother’s perspective.
One is very garrulous and talkative and outgoing and a bit of a goofball. That’s Otto, the Watson figure who is the narrator, and then you have Gustav who is more taciturn and pessimistic. I asked myself “is this some reflection of my brother and me?” and I realised “No it’s more reflections of two sides of myself.”
Sometimes I can be talkative and a goofball, but I also have a more quiet introverted Gustav side who likes a more solitary approach to things and so I can relate to both characters even though one can be annoying and one can be crusty. I can be annoying and I can be crusty..
I always know exactly what Otto is thinking and it is not hard for me to figure out how he will react to things. Gustav is tougher. Sometime I have to work out how is he reacting and why. I have to think really, really hard about what is going on in his head in terms of how he is reacting to things; why is he being crabby today? What is going on today? Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to break through the barriers and to get inside his head but I always get in there sooner or later
Jenny: One of the things that is poignant underlying the fun and games and there is more than a hint of a tragic past and it’s the same with Alanis the hero of the other series the White Magic Five and Dime series have overcome
They all had to overcome very tough circumstances to walk tall – and that’s part of the joy of the story I think.
Do you enjoy giving these characters who’ve had a rocky start in life a chance to shine?
Steve: Absolutely if you look at some of the roots of Holmes on the Range series Agatha Christie style puzzle mysteries are also very much an influence and her approach to a mystery.
I never read a ton of Christie when I was little but I loved the Poirot movies and when I set out to create my guys, what I find appealing in heroes they were going to be working class, people who are coming up from poverty or if not actual poverty something very much like it. They are representing an American democratic idea that I think the Sherlock Holmes model gives access to and that is: you don;t have to be a gentleman in a smoking jacket or a Belgian gentleman with a waxed moustache to solve this situation.
Anyone with the power of their intellect can do this. In the first book there is a bit of a class struggle going on and that was baked into Otto and Gustav first thing. Cowboys were the lowest of the low, that’s something that I don’t think people in America remember because cowboys have been so mythologised. It was dirty dangerous grunt work and if you did it you were likely to be semi literate, very poorly paid and not the greatest thinker in the world – unless you were!
Alanis’s tragic back story wasn’t quite as deliberate As I developed her back story it lead me in that direction Originally she was going to be a much more classic cozy protagonist and sometimes classic cozy protagonists – well that can be code for a middle class white woman of a certain age who is a bit white bread if you know what I mean – even a little boring.
Me being me, I wanted to push back against that. I love middle class people being one myself but for the protagonist of this series I wanted to throw something in the mix that wasn’t so standard. You know the kind of protagonist who takes over a shop, meets a hunky cop and solves the murder – “A B C.” I wanted to throw a few twists in it
So Alanis was raised by a con artist, someone who taught her that the tarot was a tool for manipulating people and that also gave me a chance to explore that idea. I guess I should says a little more about how the books came about – it wasn’t my idea.
The seedling the book grew from was my friend Lisa Falco who is a fantastic tarot reader. She had an idea for a book where there would be a tarot reader who was interacting with her clients and helping them. I guess more of a drama, helping them through their trials and tribulations. I said that’s a fantastic idea but someone has to die and she has to solve the mystery so it’s a mystery series Bing Bang Boom…
Lisa thought that was a good idea and then a few years passed and she didn’t write it. Then I had an opportunity to pitch book ideas to someone and so I suggested to Lisa that we do we do it together She believes in the power of the cards, I am very impressed with her abilities with a tarot deck and I am an open minded guy but I have had a few encounters with tarot card readers over the years and those guys were scam artists just flat out – which isn’t to say there aren’t more people like Lisa out there.
I wanted to do it so all Lisa’s expertise could be drawn in but we could also acknowledge some of the darker side.
So as it develops at the beginning Alanis uses it’s an easy tool for hitting the mark up but the more she is forced to pretend, the more she realises she is good at it and that there is something to it. Alanis’s mother was a bad person and used the tarot for not good ends and Alanis has to find herself and prove to herself that she is not a bad person, she is a hero.
Jenny: Alanis has internalised Biddle’s voice and his advice on how to live life, and its a very cynical funny voice. I feel a little guilty about introducing these as cozy mysteries in a way, because I agree they are darker than normal cozy’s, but they seems to be put into that niches.
Steve: Its a funny thing and that’s been part of my challenge. All writers sadly have to think about marketing and branding. Holmes was sometimes categorised as cozies and I don’t have anything against cozies. I think that happened in mainstream fiction today puzzle mysteries have been de-emphaised so much. You know the clues matter so much and there are a ton of red herrings. Mysteries today are not really constructed in the same way as they were in Christie’s time.
And with Alanis you or someone else might say that’s exactly like a lot of cozies, but me being me I just couldn’t color within the lines. I couldn’t make it stick to the formula and that’s just me. I guess they are quasi cozies, hitting a lot of the same notes but also coming from it from a much more cynical sceptical, slightly darker perspective.
Jenny: Thrillers are one of the most popular genres as you know. Why do you think they are so popular in our time?
Steve: Most popular thrillers are pure story and this gets to why I prefer mysteries. A thriller is pure plot, it’s page turner material. I feel like in the mystery genre there is more room for stuff I enjoy: time to get to know the characters, sink into their setting with the,- – I wouldn’t say at a leisurely pace because I wouldn’t want to suggest my books are boring – you are always drawing the reader through but it doesn’t have to be by raising the stakes to some ridiculous level.
Thrillers are go go go and we live in fast paced times and everyone’s attention is divided It makes them very hooky and I can understand their appeal but I’m not exactly that kind of reader. I totally get it. I’ve thought sometimes “boy should I try and write something more thrillerly.
You see writers who establish themselves with a series or two and then write your stand alone thriller to open the door to be marketed in a differently way by the publishing company to reach a bigger audience that really voraciously consumes the James Patterson type books.
I don’t think I will ever try it. Its an adage you hear thrown around a lot and I am sure there are good reasons: Don’t try and write a book you wouldn’t want to read. I don’t really enjoy thrillers – so I shouldn’t write thrillers. I really enjoy mysteries – I guess I’ll keep writing mysteries.
Jenny: Setting is important to readers I think If you were going to organise a literary magical tour for your series, where would you Tripadvise people to go? (I’m thinking the little town where you’ve set the White Magic Five and Dime is very like Arizona’s New Age Sedona)
Steve: Yes it’s my take on Sedona. It’s me doing Sedona but a little more rundown and little more pathetic and being able to kill people and have the police being incompetent without people getting mad with me. Sedona is famous in the West for its vibes and New Age properties and mystical things that supposedly go on in the desert.
So in the books it’s called Berdache instead. It comes from a native American language and it refers to a concept in one of the Indian nations of another gender of a person who combines the qualities of both genders. I thought it was really fun to make that the town because wasn’t it going to be a mixture of me and Lisa? If I end up doing more books I was really looking forward to exploring Berdache a bit. more. Bringing in the mystical side but very much also that commerce cynical side.
I’d love to go to Berdache and I’ve got a lot of notes on what’s where in that town… if you dropped me there I could show you the best restaurant .
STEVE AS READER
Jenny: Tell me, Do you now or have you ever binge read yourself?
I was always a reader. I remember the first binge read was the Paddington Bear books. The school library had them – was his name Bond, the man who wrote those? There were five or six Paddingtons.
I remember reading those over and over and over again and also when I got little older the You Are There history books; You Are There at the Alamo or Gettysburg. I also loved reading biographies of frontier people Davy Crocket or Daniel Boone and growing out of that always a big history buff.
In my early teens I was a big science fiction reader because I was a big Start Trek fan. If there is one thing that I binge read voraciously – I guess I should be embarrassed about this – it was Star Trek novels. I just couldn’t wait for the next one to come out and I would stay up till three or four or five in the morning to read the latest one I could get my hands on and that led me into sci fi. It’s funny I don’t read SF any more. I’d much rather read historical things at this stage. I am really a fan of historical mysteries and westerns. I have really got into Westerns in the last few years.
Jenny: Any particular series you are binge reading at the moment?
Steve: In the mystery field there a classic that is near and dear to my heart and even though I didn’t come to it until after I had started writing mysteries, once I discovered this writer it was ” it was “Oh yeah, you and me, we are sympatico.” And that’s the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout. He probably wrote thirty, maybe even forty Nero Wolfe novels so they are good for binge readers because there is a lot of them.
The thing that is really fun about them and the reason I really identify with them in terms of the mystery genre is that if you break down how the plots work and how the mysteries are resolved they are very much growing out of the Agatha Christie tradition – the English tradition but the voice is a very American voice.
It’s a pseudo Raymond Chandler voice, a funny street wise cynical voice, melding the world view of an American 1941 style mystery with the fun intellectual puzzle of Christie style mystery circa 1941. For me that’s the best of both worlds and I hope in particular the Holmes on the Range books do that too.
Jenny: If there was one thing you could change about the progress of your career, what would it be?
If I could change one thing it is that I would like to be spectacularly successful (Laughs) The mechanism by which one would achieve that of gosh I don’t know …. I’d need to do some time travelling in my past before I could really figure out what would make a difference.
Publishing is a crazy field, you never know going forward what is going to be successful and what’s not . I am very proud of the novels I wrote and I want to do more. ‘;m going to keep doing more. Spectacularly successful? Well I’d be happy with having readers, which I have, and fans, which I have, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Where you can find Steve online:
Website: Steve hockensmith,com
Facebook and Twitter talking about movies and books and what crazy things my dog did today so I encourage people to look me up and send me a friend request.