Steve Hockensmith: Petaluma's man of mystery
By Matt Pamatmat
Andresen's Tavern in Petaluma, a bar with a plethora of animal trophies hanging dustily on the wall--some even doubled up on top of each other, like the stuffed bobcat resting in the antlers of a moose's head--is the perfect spot to chat with Steve Hockensmith, former animal rights activist-cum-novelist, whose debut mystery novel, Holmes on the Range, comes out in early February 2006 from St. Martin's Minotaur. Range, with its rough-and-tumble world of cattle branding, bed lice and freshly severed prairie oysters, is an exploration of a time that was a breeding ground for crime: the Wild West, an unsettled, lawless, frontier land. It's also a respectful nod to the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Hockensmith is a tall, bearded fellow who wears black-rimmed glasses and Converse sneakers. A Petaluma resident, he also writes occasionally for The Hollywood Reporter and has had several short stories published in leading mystery magazines; he also writes a monthly column for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.
Not knowing much about the world of mystery writing, I was curious what drew him to the genre. "I kept trying to write sci-fi, but it wasn't working," he says, sipping an IPA. "I got so fed up with sci-fi that I read The Big Sleep just to try something different, and the voice jumped out at me. I liked the first-person narration, the cynical yet idealistic style of Raymond Chandler. As a kid, I always loved old movies, '40s and '50s films, Westerns, screwball comedies. It was all of these influences that fit together for me in the mystery genre, which is the genre where I found my writing voice, after so many failed attempts at sci-fi."
Hockensmith holds himself to high standards ("If I couldn't get published in leading mystery magazines, the story wasn't good enough") and knows that Range, a whodunit set in 1893 Montana and featuring brothers Old Red and Big Red Amlingmeyer, Wild West cowboys who inadvertently find themselves solving frontier crimes employing the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes, isn't the stuff of great literature. But it is a fun read, and a welcome escape from today's troubling times.
There're plenty of horseflies, flatulence and gunfire, and Hockensmith puts his skills to work weaving an intricate plot with a large cast of characters in a time and place very different from our own. Range brings to mind one of my favorite films, the philosophical-cannibal-vampire-Western Ravenous. Range even has a wayward cannibal named Hungry Bob, as well as cowboys like Swivel Eye Smyth Boudreaux, a near-silent black albino, and Anytime McCoy, a foul-mouthed, racist asshole. "That's one of the great things about that time period: cannibals running around," Hockensmith observes.
It was a smart marketing move to write a story that appeals to fans of Westerns and Sherlock Holmes alike, but it was not intentional. "It didn't grow out of any calculated idea," he says, switching to a gin and tonic. "I just happened to be hiking with my wife when the idea hit." Since mysteries are heavily plot-driven and have to have hermetic solutions to the crimes they eventually solve, Hockensmith often finds himself mentally working out loose ends at odd moments. Laughing, he says, "My two-year-old daughter is transferring dirt from a planter to our coffee maker, and I'm thinking of machinations for the plots of my stories!"
Having signed a three-book deal with St. Martin's Minotaur, further adventures of the Amlingmeyer boys are in Hockensmith's future. "I write for the market. But I also write for myself, and I enjoy the mystery genre," he says. "I get annoyed with people who look down upon genre fiction, people like Margaret Atwood, who won't confess she writes sci-fi, but calls it 'speculative fiction.' I'm fine that Holmes on the Range's cover says 'mystery,' because that's what I write. It's how my mind works; I enjoy figuring stories out, piecing together clues. I enjoy the challenge of putting a new spin on the genre.
"Generally speaking," he continues, "unlike literary short stories, there's still a market for mystery short fiction. I'm looking forward to writing some shorter pieces after getting these novels worked out. I woke up the other night at 3am in a cold sweat, thinking 'Fuck this novel!' Novels, especially mystery novels--I've signed a deal to write one a year--are real beasts. Everything has to fit together, make sense. Since we're living in postmodern times, a lot of ideas have been done already. It makes writers writing today work even harder. But, like any job, I have good and bad days, and I never forget how lucky I am to be a full-time writer, to sit in a room each day and concoct fictional stories and get paid for it." We raise glasses and clink to that.
To learn more, go to www.stevehockensmith.com.
From the October 19-25, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.