Let’s Go Down to the Big Ranch*

RanchesIf you live in suburbia or in a city, you might not think a lot about what it takes to get your milk, cheese, and meat (for those who eat meat) to market. It’s not an easy process. Cattle and sheep ranching are expensive undertakings that require a lot of land, luck with the weather, and hard work. Even with today’s technology, ranching still means long days, especially when calves and lambs are born. It’s not a life for everyone, but it keeps the rancher close to the land.

Ranching is a central part of the economy for many cultures, and it’s certainly found its way into crime fiction. That makes sense, too. As we’ll see, there are lots of places to hide a body on a ranch, and anything can happen there.

In Ngaio Marsh’s Died in the Wool, for instance, New Zealand MP Flossie Rubrick is preparing an important speech that she’s scheduled to deliver. So she goes to an isolated sheep pen on her husband’s ranch to prepare. She doesn’t return, though, until three weeks later, when her body is found inside a bale of wool. The victim’s nephew writes to Scotland Yard’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn about the death; and, since this might be a matter of national security, Alleyn travels to New Zealand to investigate. In the end, the murder turns out to be related to an important secret that Flossie Rubrick had found out about one of her family members.

More than one of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Boney’ Bonaparte novels are set on ranches. In The Bushman Who Came Back, for instance, Bony is sent to Mt. Eden, a ranch belonging to Mr. Wooten. Wooten’s widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Bell, is shot one morning, and her seven-year-old daughter Linda disappears. Fearing the worst about Linda, the ranch hands go on a search, and Bony starts to sift through the evidence. On the surface, it looks as though a bushman named Ol’ Fren Yorky was responsible both for the murder and for abducting Linda. No-one wants to believe this of him, since he’s well liked. But the evidence is what it is. Still, the more that Bony learns about the case, the more he comes to believe in Yorky’s innocence. But if he is innocent, then where is Linda? Now, Bony has to go in search of both Yorky and Linda to find out the truth. You’re absolutely right, fans of The Bone is Pointed.

Even Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, who normally wouldn’t dream of leaving his brownstone home, let alone New York City, visits a ranch in Death of a Dude. Wolfe’s partner Archie Goodwin has accepted an invitation from Lily Rowan to be part of a house party at her ranch in rural Montana. Goodwin’s plan is to have a short visit with Lily and then return to New York. Everything changes, though, when Philip Brodell is shot, and Lily’s ranch manager, Roger Dunning, is accused of the crime. Lily is sure he is innocent, and wants Goodwin (and, by extension, Wolfe) to solve the murder. When Goodwin writes to Wolfe to explain why he’s changed his travel plans, Wolfe takes an interest in the case and makes the unusual decision to travel to Montana.

Steve Hockensmith has created an interesting historical (early 1890s) series whose protagonists are Gustav ‘Old Red’ Amlingmeyer and his brother Otto ‘Big Red.’ At the beginning of the series (Holmes on the Range) they are cowpokes who sign on to work at the Bar VR Ranch in Montana. They know that life as ranch hands isn’t going to be luxurious, but they’ll be able to indulge their pastime of reading Sherlock Holmes stories. Then, a ranch hand dies of a gunshot wound. Another dies after being trampled (but there was no cattle stampede that anyone can remember). Now, Old Red decides to use his ‘deducifyin’’ skills to find out the truth – just like Sherlock Holmes.

The Lone Elk Ranch is the scene for much of the action in Craig Johnson’s Dry Bones. It all starts when a large Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton nicknamed ‘Jen’ is discovered on the ranch. This is a very valuable find, both for the local museum and for science, and there are lots of people who want their hands on it. With stakes in the millions, there are plenty of suspects when the ranch’s owner, a member of the Cheyenne Nation named Danny Lone Elk, is found dead. Sheriff Walt Longmire (now Acting Deputy Attorney for Wyoming) looks into the matter to find out how and why Danny was killed.

And I couldn’t really do a post on cattle and ranching without mentioning Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe. Fans will tell you that she got her start as Botswana’s first lady detective because her father, Obed, had a keen eye for cattle and owned a fine herd. When he passed away, the cattle went to his daughter, and it’s meant a great deal to her to have that security.

There are a lot of other novels that take place on cattle and sheep ranches. They really are effective contexts for a crime story if you think about it. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Los Lobos’ The Big Ranch. 


Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Upfield, Craig Johnson, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout, Steve Hockensmith

28 responses to “Let’s Go Down to the Big Ranch*

  1. A.M. Pietroschek

    Sorry, I am purely European on that topic… 😉

  2. Earlene Fowler’s Benni Harper is a rancher, I think.

    I have greatly enjoyed the escapades of the Arlingmeyer brothers, and (of course) Mma Precious Ramotswe.

    • Right you are, Debbie, about Benni Harper. Thanks for filling in that gap. And I agree, the Alingmeyer brothers and Mma Ramotswe are terrific characters. They’re unique, but they’re very much human, and easy to like, in my opinion.

  3. Not a crime novel, but I love Kent Haruf’s Plainsong.

  4. Can’t think of any other than Mma Ramotswe – like Andre, I think I’m too European. But I just love “deducifyin'” skills! I feel I may have to steal that expression for future crime reviews… 😉

  5. Col

    Not especially well known, but I read Jim Stewart’s Ochoco Reach a month or two back. The cattle ranch owner gets kidnapped as a cartel boss wants to use her land for drug drops and people smuggling.

  6. Margot: At least in Saskatchewan the distinction between a ranch and a farm is not always clear. While not a mystery Cool Water by Dianne Warren provides a vivid portrayal of life on ranches / farms of southwestern Saskatchewan.

  7. Just came back from a visit to my relatives deep in the Romanian countryside. Whilst they are smallholders rather than ranchers, many of the concerns and something about the way of life still sounds familiar.

    • I’d guess there are a lot of commonalities, Marina Sofia. Smallholders are just as close to the land and probably have many of the same concerns, as you say. I hope you really enjoyed your visit!

  8. Ranch settings are a great source of locations and ways to dispose of a body. In addition, the stress of ranch work and the desire to expand one’s holdings can lead to murder. An interesting way to view ranch life, Margot. 🙂

    • Thanks, Mason 🙂 – And you know, you’re right about the issue of wanting to expand a ranch. That can certainly lead to all sorts of nefarious doings, can’t it? So can the stress of working a ranch.

  9. kathyd

    Another character appropriate for mention here is Stella Crown, a Pennsylvania dairy farmer and biker, in a series written by Judy Clemens. She is one tough cookie.

  10. kathyd

    So glad you include Mma Precious Ramotswe. The first book in the series, The First Ladies Detective Agency, is beautifully written about Botswana, the land, the people — such reverence.
    And it’s true that Mma Ramotswe would not have been able to open her agency if it were not for her father’s financial assistance which came from his cattle farm.

  11. Terry Shames’ series of books about Samuel Craddock are set in a small Texan town, and ranching features largely. Meanwhile I am intrigued by the Nero Wolfe book you mention – I have had glimpses of Lily Rowan in the books I have read, but never dreamt she was substantial enough to have a ranch in Montana! I will have to add that one to my list…

    • I’ll be interested in what you think of Death of a Dude if you get to it, Moira. It’s an interesting, different perspective on Goodwin, Rowan and Wolfe. And in the meantime, thanks for the nudge about Terry Shames’ work.

  12. Hmm…I don’t believe I’ve read a crime novel that takes place on a ranch. Living in a small, rural town where farming is a way of life for so many, I witness the blood, sweat, and tears (pardon the cliché) farmers go through on a daily basis. The news reported that this year has been especially brutal for farmers in Massachusetts. They’re not growing grass like they normally do, so they’re having to buy hay from farms near where I live in New Hampshire in order to feed their animals.

    • That is really bad news, Sue! And that’s the thing about farming; you never know what the elements will be like. Farmers, especially family farmers (as opposed to commercial farms) risk an awful lot, especially when they’re also raising cattle. It can be pretty awful when things don’t go well.

  13. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…8/23/16 – Where Worlds Collide

  14. tracybham

    Of course, Death of a Dude is one of my favorite Rex Stout books, because it features Lily so prominently. Don’t know that I have read much else set on a ranch.

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