Saturday, August 15, 2009

"The Crack in the Lens"

Steve Hockensmith's novels include Holmes on the Range, On the Wrong Track, and The Black Dove. Holmes on the Range, the first novel featuring Big Red and Old Red, was a finalist for the Edgar, the Anthony, the Shamus and the Dilys Award.

He applied the “Page 69 Test” to The Crack in the Lens, and reported the following:
Too bad this isn’t The Page 77 Test. Now there’s a page that’ll curl your literary toes. Oooooo, and page 189’s dynamite, too. And I sure hope pages 207 through 223 make it in front of the Nobel committee, you know what I’m saying? Ditto pages 8, 20, 43 through 47, 71, 73....

I’m pretty proud of the whole book, actually -- said book being, by the way, my newest “Holmes on the Range” mystery, The Crack in the Lens. In pages 1 through 68, we follow Sherlock Holmes-worshipping cowboy brothers Otto “Big Red” and Gustav “Old Red” Amlingmeyer to San Marcos, Texas, where Gustav’s sweetheart, Adeline, was brutally murdered years before. The guys are determined to use their new “deducifying” skills (acquired in the previous three novels) to find the girl’s killer.

Complication #1: Adeline was a prostitute, and her former pimps don’t appreciate wannabe detectives nosing around. Complication #2: The county sheriff, Ike Rucker, is one of the pimps’ best customers. Complication #3: The town marshal, Milford Bales, hates Rucker and the pimps -- but, for mysterious reasons, hates Old Red even more.

On page 65, Sheriff Rucker drops in on the Amlingmeyers’ breakfast to give the boys a little not-so-friendly advice (of the “leave town” variety). He also helps himself to most of their food. Old Red’s a prickly little guy on the best of days, and what we see next is how prickly he can be on his worst. As the conversation reaches its head, Old Red loses his.

“I knew that gal myself [Rucker is saying as we begin reading], and it’s a shame what happened to her, but you know what she was. It’s a rough business, and people get hurt. That’s just the way of it, and you’d best accept that.”

Old Red’s lips squeezed tight but his jaw was working, almost squirming beneath the skin. He looked like a man trying to figure out what kind of bug just flew into his mouth. He finally washed the sour expression away with a long slurp of coffee.

Rucker’s coffee.

“So,” he said, slamming the mug down hard in front of the sheriff, “you ‘knew’ Adeline, did you? You usin’ that word Biblical-like? Cuz obviously it ain’t just ranch-hands who turn to [the local pimps] for their fun.”

Rucker had been polishing off the last of my potatoes when Old Red got going, and now he froze mid-chew.

“And tell me, Sheriff,” my brother rolled on. “Them ‘people’ who ‘get hurt sometimes.’ Who would you be talkin’ about, exactly? Cuz if the son of a bitch who sliced Adeline up has done the same to anyone else since then, that’s blood on your hands. And another thing -- ”

Gustav was cut off by a nerve-shaking clatter -- Rucker tossing the fork he’d appropriated onto my plate.

“Listen here, you little shit.” Rucker snatched my napkin off my lap, wiped his mouth with it, then threw it back into my chest. “Do you have any idea why I sat down to talk things through with you all polite like this?”

“Because you were hungry?” I ventured.

Rucker kept his unblinking gaze on Gustav.

“Cuz we’re inside city limits,” my brother said.

“That’s right. Milford Bales’s badge trumps mine here in town. But out there?” The sheriff pointed a long finger to the east, then did the same to the north, west and south. “And there and there and there? That’s all me, and the law is what I say it is. Right is what I say it is. And wrong, too. So sittin’ here in San Marcos, I can only try to persuade you to see reason. But the second you cross the line...?”

And it’s on to page 70! On which, as you might guess, the sheriff does not promise to bake our heroes a cake.

I think all this passes the test because it doesn’t just show us a dramatic, high-conflict moment (while weaving in, as luck would have it, some context for the plot). It also ties nicely into the theme of the book. The title, The Crack in the Lens, references a quote from a Holmes story: Dr. Watson writes that the great detective saw love as nothing more than “a crack in one of his own high-power lenses.”

Well, Old Red’s lens is cracking up big-time here, so much so that he’s pissing off dangerous people like Sheriff Ike Rucker. Is he able to hold it together long enough to catch the killer? Readers will have to turn the page to find out...and hopefully, they will.
Read an excerpt from The Crack in the Lens, and visit Big Red's blog to learn more about Steve Hockensmith and his writing.

Author Interviews: Steve Hockensmith.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue