When talking to Steve Hockensmith, there is an on-going theme. Something he keeps coming back to:
His books don’t sell as well as he and his publisher want and the future of the books is uncertain.
This should not be. His books are funny, original, and rather than plots driving the characters, the characters drive the plot.They paint a great picture of the old American West and manage not to romanticize it while not making it overly dour either. I want the books to sell to see Hockensmith’s take on places like 19th century Hawaii and Cuba and the real thuggish nature of the Pinkerton’s. What’s particularly amazing is that in the field of Sherlock analogues, he manages to make his two protagonists completely different and interesting. Do yourself and Steve a favor and check out his books, and you can help out CHUD too! Amazon.com: Steve Hockensmith: Books Read them not because they’re great, but because Hockensmith is doing something new and original and fun with his books.
Actually, I can think of a really good reason why not: The Western genre’s a sales killer. So let me take this opportunity to make an announcement to the world.
I don’t write Westerns!
Except, of course, I do.
It always annoys me when some pretentious wanker insists his new novel/movie/TV show/whatever isn’t science fiction even though it’s about mutant clones battling aliens for dominion over the earth. “Yeah, it takes place a thousand years in the future, but it’s really about people” blah blah blah. So I don’t want to be a hypocrite by trying to distance myself from the Western. My heroes are cowboys, for chrissakes! The first book takes place on a cattle ranch in the 1890s. The bad guys in the second book are train robbers. Come on!
But I do truly believe that my books are, first and foremost, mysteries. They just happen to be historical mysteries in which the setting is the 19th century West.
Does that sound lame?
See, this is a little dance I do because I suspect there are a lot of mystery readers who’d never touch a book they thought was a Western. I wish I didn’t have to worry about that, but I do. So I end up feeling ambivalent about my connection to a wonderful American storytelling tradition that I, personally, have great fondness for. Sad, eh?
So let’s start again.
Why Westerns? Because I grew up with them, probably. Both my dad and my granddad were huge Western fans, so when I was a little kid I didn’t just know who John Wayne and Clint Eastwood were — I knew Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and Lash La Rue and Red Ryder and Gabby Hayes and Smiley Burnette and on and on to infinity. I was always a history buff, too, so the reality behind the fantasy was fascinating to me, as well. And I guess all that just stuck with me through the years. Blame it on nostalgia…or arrested development.
There’s a darker tone to Black Dove, even the cover has a darker tone compared to the more colorful titles and covers to the first two books. Why?
There are two answers to that question. The first is this: The darker tone just happened. There was no career game plan shaping the feel of the book — I wasn’t trying to redefine myself or stretch myself or anything like that. I just let the story be my guide, and it took me to some pretty gloomy places. There’s still a lot of humor in the mix, though, so I don’t think the more downbeat elements are going to be jarring for people who read the first two books. Hopefully, folks’ll go with the flow. My hope for this series is that the tone can vary slightly from book to book. The one I’m working on now is actually darker, in some ways, than The Black Dove. And the one I want to do after that will be the first flat-out comedy of the bunch. We’ll see if I can get away with it.
The second answer is this: The darker look of the book is deliberate. I think there’s been some disappointment that the first two novels — particularly On the Wrong Track — didn’t break out more, sales-wise. The conventional wisdom seems to be that the covers were too colorful, too in your face, “too YA.” So the packaging has been toned down and classed up, and that rather fortuitously coincides with a new entry in the series that has a gritty urban setting.
To some degree, it goes back to that Western ghetto thing: The first two books were mysteries that looked like Westerns, and maybe that hurt us. I don’t think there’s going to be any confusion this time out.
What I like is that each book so far has had a nomadic sensibility, each in a vastly different setting. Is this meant to just keep the series interesting for you and the reader? To tackle different aspects of the late 19th century?
I briefly — like for two seconds — thought about settling Big Red and Old Red down in a town somewhere in the West and letting the series play out as an amateur sleuth kinda thing. Thank god I didn’t do it! The Murder, She Wrote vibe would’ve driven me crazy pretty fast.
In this week’s episode: The boys get mixed up in a local murder — again – when their visiting cousin is accused of gunning down the town cardsharp!
It’s been a lot more fun to play with a “walk the earth” scenario. The guys are really on a quest through the first few books: They’re bouncing around trying to define themselves and find some kind of home to replace the one they lost. And if I’m allowed to keep writing these books, they’re going to succeed, eventually — although in a way that’ll keep them on the move even after that. It’s my hope that there’ll be 25 books in this series one day, with entries set in Chicago and Hawaii and Mexico and Canada and Cuba and New York and on and on and on.
London’ll pop up sooner or later, too, of course. Maybe sometime around book #12. If there is a book #12….
What’s the appeal of Sherlock Holmes to you?
To at least some degree, I’m sure it’s plain old nostalgia, like with the Westerns. He’s a character I grew up with, a connection to my own past. I think he’s also got certain elements I identify with. He’s SuperNerd, really — the socially awkward introvert who also happens to be the sharpest guy in town. What former high school geek wouldn’t love that? And there’s the Victorian setting, as well. It’s such a fun, fascinating era, and in a way he’s the embodiment of it.
And let’s not forget Watson. I’m a sucker for the buddy-flick dynamic in genre fiction, and Holmes and Watson did it first and best. Well, maybe not first — there was C. Auguste Dupin and his roomie years before. But those two were kind of creepy.
There’s only one crime-solving duo that can compete with Holmes and Watson: Nick and Nora Charles…and thanks to Asta, they’re really a trio. So the tag-team title goes to the Fabulous Baker Street Boys, hands down.
Why make the Amlingmeyer Brothers dutch?
I can’t stand Hero Names. You know — Dirk Steele or Wolf Hunter or Slade Hawke or whatever. That stuff’s so damned Young and the Restless it makes me kind of sick. Maybe it’s because people have been misspelling my name my whole life. What…someone with more than three syllables in his name can’t be a hero?
No genre’s been worse about that than Westerns: Cowboys are always given nice, bland, white bread Anglo-Saxon surnames. But, of course, in reality the West was chock full o’ immigrants from all over the place. So I not only made my heroes the children of German-speaking farmers, I decided to give them the longest, most un-Hollywood names I could think of: Gustav and Otto Amlingmeyer. (I actually went to grade school with a little red-haired girl named Jody Amlingmeyer, so I pilfered the family name from her.)
In hindsight, I probably should have called them Dirk and Slade Steele. It might’ve made the series an easier sell. “A Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer Mystery” won’t even fit on the front of a damn book.
Why make Old Red illiterate?
I was trying to create a Holmes-worshipping character who’d be as unlike Holmes as possible, and an illiterate cowpoke seemed the way to go. Plus, it gave his Watson/sidekick something to do: read him the stories. So though Big Red’s not as nuts about Holmes, Old Red — and the reader — still must experience Holmes through him.
It also gives Old Red a weakness, which always makes things more interesting. And it means he has something to work on in the future, another way he needs to grow: He’s not going to stay illiterate forever, you know. How will it change the relationship between him and his brother when he does learn to read — when Old Red doesn’t have to rely on Big Red in the same way? That should be fun to play with…assuming the series lasts long enough for me to get there.
Do you have any interest in covering the darker and more thuggish aspects of the Pinkertons?
Totally! Originally, the second novel was going to be about a bloody miner’s strike, with the boys hiring on with the Pinkerton goons and then switching loyalty half-way through the story. After doing some research, though, I decided I wasn’t ready to write that book. I wanted to do something more bright and vibrant and adventure-y, instead. Hence On the Wrong Track.
But the Pinkertons aren’t off the hook. I’ll get around to a story about a nasty strike sooner or later. And when I do…well, probably everybody’s going to come out looking bad.
Will your Big Red and Old Red short stories ever be collected into one volume?
I sure hope so. There’s not quite enough for a collection yet: just six stories (two to be published next year) totaling something like 50,000 words. I’m thinking about trying to pull a collection together next year maybe, once I’m done with the fourth book. But a lot depends on how the novels do. Short story collections are hard enough to sell. If the series doesn’t take off, a collection’ll be pretty moot.
How much research goes into the books?
The answer used to be “tons.” For the first three novels, I took at least a month to do nothing but research and brainstorm. I’m giving myself a break with the fourth book, though. The other books all have such specific settings — a ranch, a passenger train, San Francisco’s Chinatown. I wanted to try something more generic this time out. So the book takes place in a small town in Texas…and that’s it. Nothing fancy. So far, it feels like a nice change of pace.
Since I’m a complete masochist, I can’t make it easy on myself forever, however. The fifth book is going to take place in the midst of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which is going to require more research than anything I’ve ever done.
I’m already looking forward to it, though. That’s just the kind of geeky guy I am, I guess.
Why is the Western genre in movies on life support?
Changing audience taste, mostly. American males who once turned primarily to Westerns for satisfying, violent, good-versus-evil stories now prefer to get all that from FX-packed action movies. Once you’ve entered The Matrix, Rio Bravo’s going to seem pretty creaky no matter how good it is.
But me, I’m an old-fashioned guy, so I’d still rather watch The Man from Laramie than Transformers any day.
What was the last great western you saw?
Maybe that’s part of the problem for the genre — when was the last time there was a great Western movie? Unforgiven came out in 1992, and I don’t think there’s been anything that good in theaters since then.
If we broaden it up to include TV, though, we can throw in the late, lamented Deadwood. Now there was proof that you could still do the Western in a way that wouldn’t seem musty or Old School at all. That show was damn near perfect. That it was cancelled was, I think, another huge blow to the genre.
Oh, and I haven’t seen Broken Trail yet, but I’ve heard good things. It’s apparently got some similarities to The Black Dove, though, so I didn’t want to watch it until I was totally finished with the book. Now that Dove’s done, I’ll probably bump Broken Trail up to the top of my Netflix queue.
Will you write a novel set in the present?
I already have…I just couldn’t get anyone to publish it! To be fair, though, it’s probably pretty bad. It was my first stab at a novel, a Carl Hiaaseny kind of thing about wacky skullduggery behind the scenes at a corrupt zoo. I’d like to go back and fix it up one of these days — I still love the premise and, geez, what a shame to waste all that research.
Whether I go back to the zoo thing or not, I’m hoping to do a contemporary standalone in the next year or two. It’s tough when you have a book-a-year contract, though. I can barely find the time to write short stories anymore, let alone a non-Big Red/Old Red novel.
Who is your favorite Holmes analogue?
On the printed page, it’s Nero Wolfe. There’s nobody else quite like him, and I love the cranky-yet-codependent Archie/Wolfe relationship. If we look at all of pop culture, though, my new fave has to be Columbo. I was laid up for a few weeks recovering from surgery recently and I just gorged on Columbo DVDs. The scripts were often very, very good — though talky in a way you couldn’t get away with now — and, of course, Peter Falk is a joy to watch. (It was a little horrifying, though, running across an episode about a murder that was almost exactly like the one in The Black Dove. Some of the clues were even the same. We’ll see if I get a nasty letter from The Columbo Appreciation Society….)
I think Columbo’s got the same SuperNerd appeal as Holmes. There’s a lot of pleasure to be had watching a brilliant eccentric piece together the big picture no one else can see. I hope my books are fun in that way, too.
Why did you make them relatively young in the mid to late 20’s?
Mostly, that was meant to reflect reality: Cowboys tended to be very young, mainly because the work was so hard and dangerous no one could do it very long. You’d either be killed, maimed or (if you were smart and lucky) find another line of work. With Big Red and Old Red, it also let me present characters who were still naïve enough to dream and young enough to change. I don’t know if I could buy a 40-year-old illiterate who really, truly believes he’s as smart as Sherlock Holmes. Well, maybe I could…but he’d be crazy, and Old Red’s not.
What is your favorite western?
Book and movie, it’s the same answer: Little Big Man. Superficially, it’s nothing like what I do — it’s picaresque, it’s essentially plotless, it flouts any and all genre conventions. But it had a huge impact on me that I think you can see in my novels. The narrative voice is vaguely similar — rough and colorful and slangy yet (hopefully, in my case) poetic, too. And the balance of light and dark, humor and tragedy is similar, as well.
Some books and movies manage to be funny. Some books and movies manage to be funny. Some books and movies manage to be moving. Little Big Man is funny and moving. Now, that’s something to aspire to.