Steve Hockensmith Ditches His Prelude

Steve Hockensmith's latest addition to his mystery series Holmes on the Range with this month's World's Greatest Sleuth! The novel follows the adventure of two brothers in the late 1800s, that travel to the first-ever World's Fair in order to enter the competition for the title of the World's Greatest Sleuth. Enjoy this exclusive look at the original prologue of Hockensmith's new release.

I admit it: I’m a cheater. Not at cards or Monopoly. Not on my taxes. And dear Lord -- I’m not talking about cheating on my wife! How could you think such a thing of me?

No, I’m talking about in my books. My Holmes on the Range historical mystery series, in particular. I like to start each novel with a bang -- or, more often, a dead body -- but I do it in a tricky way. My narrator, former cowboy/wannabe detective Otto “Big Red” Amlingmeyer, opens every book with what he calls the “Prelude.” It’s always something dramatic, and it ends with a cliffhanger. Then we move on to chapter one, which actually cycles back in time a few days to reveal how Otto and his brother Old Red (the real “deducifyin’” genius of the series) got into such a mess in the first place. By chapter eight or nine, we’ve worked our way back to where we came in -- the prelude/teaser/cheat that began the book.

Yes, it’s a cheap excuse to front-load the story with action. But hey -- it works!

Well, usually. When I turned in the first draft of my latest Holmes on the Range novel, World’s Greatest Sleuth!, my editor had only one major note: Ditch the prelude. This time I’d gone too far. I wasn’t just cheating -- I was playing a dirty trick!

What had I done that was so over-the-line? You’ll find the original opening to World’s Greatest Sleuth! below. Let’s see if you can guess.

Oh, and FYI: The book takes place almost entirely in “the White City,” the spectacular exposition built in Chicago for the 1893 world’s fair.

All right, enough context -- on to my cheat!

Or, The Height of Evil

Alexander Alexandrovich was at the pommes frites again, and I’d had enough of it.

“Come on now, Alex -- leave some potatoes for the rest of us,” I chided him. “You’d think you was an Irishman instead of the czar of all the Russias.”

There was laughter all around the table.

Well, not all around. One guest -- the one seated directly to my left -- remained silent. And when I say “remained silent,” I mean he’d been working at it for quite a while. My brother hadn’t made a peep since we’d lifted off the ground.

I couldn’t blame him, really. Old Red’s no lover of mechanized travel: Sometimes I think even a buckboard’s too new-fangled for him. So to have him step into the equivalent of a train car for dinner...and then whisk said car two-hundred and some feet into the air? I was glad for once my scrawny older brother couldn’t bring himself to eat, for anything he got down his throat wouldn’t have stayed down long.

“Alright, my friend -- for you I will starve myself like a peasant!” the czar chortled. (For some reason, his jokes always involved starving peasants.) He dismissed the tray-toting waiter beside him with a flip of the wrist.

“Oh, no you don’t,” I said, waving the man back. “I wanted them taters for myself, remember?”

There was more laughter as the waiter loaded my plate. Again.

My neighbor to the right leaned in close, her hand slipping beneath the table to rest on my thigh.

“Tell me -- are all your appetites so outsized?” she said in a low, breathy voice.

“Well, Sarah,” I whispered back, “they don’t call me ‘Big Red’ just cuz I’m tall.”

Miss Bernhardt batted her eyes and gave my leg a squeeze.

Of course, everyone knew what she was up to, and our host smoothly shifted attention away from the lady’s latest conquest-in-progress.

“Old Red,” he said, “you haven’t told us what you think of the view.”

There was an obvious reason for this: My brother hadn’t been able to make himself look out the windows, though they surrounded us on all sides.

“It’s really...something,” he managed to grate out.

“It’s more than that, Mr. Ferris,” I said, tearing my gaze from the famous beauty beside me. I nodded out at the lights of the White City and Chicago beyond. “It’s amazing. In fact, the only thing that amazes me more than this wheel of yours is findin’ myself atop it dinin’ with the likes of you all.”

“The honor is ours,” Mr. Ferris said, and he scooped up his wine glass and lifted it high. “To our new friends, the Amlingmeyers.”

Miss Bernhardt, the czar, the czarina, Mr. Westinghouse, Geronimo, the Kaiser, Mr. Carnegie, and all the rest raised their glasses.

“To the Amlingmeyers,” they said.

No sooner had I returned their salute than a silver flash lit up the car, and a second later a thumping boom rattled the windows.

“Ah,” Mr. Ferris said. “Our floor show begins.”

We all turned to look out over Lake Michigan, where the Exposition sent up its nightly fireworks display. The most startling pyrotechnics, however, turned out to be inside our compartment.

There was a moist kerplunk, followed by a woman’s scream, and everyone whipped around to find the czar doubled up over the table, his face in his borscht and a dagger in his back.

The tsarina screamed again, and my brother bolted from his seat to reach her side...which he passed right by, choosing not to offer the lady aid but to eyeball her freshly assassinated husband.

“Blade ain’t in deep, but it’s straight,” Old Red said as Miss Nightingale led away the sobbing tsarina. “It was thrown. But from where?”

He glanced back at the section of the car behind the tsar. There was no one there. All the guests had been before the man at the table, while the servants and cooks were lined up at the makeshift kitchen twenty feet to his right.

“It’s simply not possible,” Mr. Edison said.

Maybe he was right, maybe not. What happened next, though? That was impossible, no doubt about it.

The door swung open -- a door leading out onto nothing but moonlit night-time clouds -- and a man stepped inside. He was but a tall, thin silhouette until more fireworks lit him up from behind.

“Good god!” gasped Mr. Pulitzer.

“You’re supposed to be dead!” cried Mr. Twain.

“Such reports are greatly exaggerated,” the man replied coolly. “Sherlock Holmes still lives...and it seems he has a murderer to catch.”


What’s not to love, right? You’ve got action, romance, humor, a cast of colorful historical characters and a cameo by the greatest sleuth of all time. Why in the world would my editor want me to throw out such a boffo opening?

I’ll tell you why. The scene never actually happens. Unlike in the other books, we don’t see the teaser play itself out again later. What we get instead is a conversation late in the novel in which someone complains about Big Red’s “Preludes.” They’re unnecessary, he says. By the time the reader gets back to where they came in, they don’t remember what they read at the beginning of the book anyway. You could stick in something that never happens at all, and no one would notice.

“Well, I don’t know about that,” Big Red replies, but we get the feeling he’s going to try it.

And in the first draft, he did. In the second draft -- the version that’s now in stores -- he doesn’t. I threw out the fantasy scene in the Ferris Wheel and wrote a new prologue. The original was my little dig at mysteries that are too jam-packed with famous historical figures for their own good. As it turned out, though, I was being too clever for my own good. 

When it comes to storytelling, you see, a wee bit of cheating is O.K. But you never, ever want your readers to feel cheated.

- Steve Hockensmith

So how does the story continue? You can find out by picking up your copy of World's Greatest Sleuth! in stores now.