If 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.