Gavin Stuff

Wolf Stockburn: Failroad Detective

The many (badly photoshopped) faces of Wolf Stockburn.

Occasionally I type the word “railroad” into audiobook apps to see what’ll pop up. Mostly I get the usual suspects of dry history books, but a few weeks ago an enticing cover caught my eye: Wolf Stockburn, Railroad Detective. Written by first-time author Max O’Hara, the book follows the titular detective solving train robberies on the newly-completed transcontinental railroad. 

What I expected was a Book for Dads with some occasional spurts of train-based action and intrigue. What I got was a book that genuinely spurred me to return to fiction writing. Not because it’s a good book, heavens no. If anything, I read the sequel Hell’s Jaw Pass purely to see if the inherent problems of Wolf Stockburn were systemic or just first-novel hiccups. 

They were not. 

O’Hara writes like a first-time fanfiction author. He has a bag full of tropes from decades of reading Western books and watching Western movies, but unfortunately he also seems to be under the impression he has to use as many as possible. What we got is a paperback destined for an old wire rack deep in the heart of a rural Dollar General. To give a general sense of the vibe surrounding this book: the audiobook narrator was clearly cast because his voice is the aural equivalent of a genderless product branded “for men.” 

Before I get too deep into this exhaustive review of the first Wolf Stockburn book, I need to address the basic structural flaw of O’Hara’s writing: the man can’t shut the fuck up to save his life. It’s clear he envisions scenes in a way that makes it very important for readers to understand which direction every single object or person moves in. Stockburn can’t just draw his Winchester from his saddle holster, you have to know it came from the saddle holster positioned by Stockburn’s right leg. It makes no difference that it’s the only saddle holster. If a sentence can possibly contain a fragment that indicates where something moved like a long-winded gas station attendant giving directions, it will. Fair warning.

Two books into the series and I still don’t have a grasp on what audience Stockburn is supposed to appeal to. There’s obvious love for the Western-ness of it all, going so far as to spend page upon page setting up “horse apples” as a daily occurrence so O’Hara can then deploy them as a plot-defining clue in the latter half of the book. Chekov’s horseshit, if I may. O’Hara certainly won’t, as his Western fantasy seems to draw the line at gruesome violence. 

Dozens of men are shot throughout the adventures of Wolf Stockburn and Hell’s Jaw Pass. The entry and exit of bullets into rude boys is described in various levels of detail, bordering on George R. R. Martin’s casually gruesome scenes. Outside violence, however, Wolf Stockburn lives in a world as sterile as a movie made under the Hays Code. A world in which people do not have sex in-scene, they do not swear, and they certainly don’t see color. 

Yes, for those holding out hope: O’Hara does fuck-all to address the inherent racism of the time in which Wolf Stockburn and its sequels is set. If anything he wholeheartedly leans into it. Black people simply do not exist in the Dakota territories, if the events around Stockburn are any indication. The closest Stockburn comes to addressing slavery is a passing mention of “the war.” A scene relatively early in a random saloon features some “Mexicans” sporting sombreros (though, given O’Hara’s attempt to differentiate Stockburn from other Western protagonists is to give him a black sombrero he loves dearly, the narrator makes a point of saying the guys who actually  should have sombreros are wearing incredibly gaudy ones that aren’t as cool as Stockburn’s). They’re promptly murdered as, of course, they work for the bad guys. Native populations aren’t as lucky as Black folks, as O’Hara’s narrator loves to toss around the term “half-breed” in reference to the handful of mixed-race Native characters. 

O’Hara feels like a dude who once laughed at this t-shirt and considers that enough to qualify as an ally. Tribes are referred to exclusively by their colonizer names. The only Native characters to physically appear in the book are mixed-race for seemingly the same motivations authors choose not to depict Black people in medieval Europe. At one point Stockburn goes full-on fetish mode and imagines how badass it’d be to die by a not-white dude:

“Encountering the old Sioux war parties had been like happening upon some magnificent wild beast stepping through a curtain in time, out of the shadows of the long-dead ancients—untainted by civilization, untrammeled and pristine in its savagery. The Sioux were so impressive and ethereal that Stockburn had often thought he might feel a little honored, being sent to his reward by one.”

At least the plot is a bit more straightforward than the author’s approach to POC characters. Wolf Stockburn, Railroad Detective is, like a lot of Western novels, a light mystery book with some guns and horses thrown in for flavor. Stockburn wants to find the Devil’s Hoard and proceeds to bounce around the Dakota territory like a pinball until he accidentally finds them. Most chapters end with a random cliffhanger, tacitly acknowledging the majority of this book’s audience will be reading in bed and need motivation to continue further. 

There are two main motivators for Wolf Stockburn: 

  1. Find the kidnapped sister he has not seen in 20 years, dead or alive. 
  2. Live a life of justice because he had sex with his best friend’s girlfriend, got caught, and said friend committed self-oof by throwing himself in front of a San Francisco cable car. Another victim of monogamy-as-default.

The first motivator is introduced with the gravitas of a character trait that will follow Stockburn throughout his adventures. During the early chapters of Wolf Stockburn I already knew there were multiple sequels and expected this sister plot to be a recurring thread picked up as Stockburn travels across the Old West. 

Imagine my surprise when he accidentally finds the woman a couple chapters before the ending, doesn’t recognize her, and their first conversation as brother and sister takes place on the last two pages. Closure is not a luxury Stockburn novels provide.

With the context of Hell’s Jaw Pass I have a strong feeling O’Hara hates writing endings. Much hay is made in the middle bits of an O’Hara novel, relishing in whatever historical details he dug up for that particular adventure or creating excuses to use a 19th century vocab word like “truculent” (which ends up repeating five times throughout Hell’s Jaw through various characters and the narrator). He loves to live in the world he’s created but when it comes time to wrap things it feels like the book is pissed it has to wrap things up. Stockwell lives through a massive gunfight, his plucky walking stereotype partner gets one big kill, the sister is happy to see him, iris out to the credits. 

O’Hara’s world isn’t half bad, to his credit. A side effect of the fan-fiction-ness of it all is everything in the book is most details are there because another author went through the trouble of ironing out the kinks. Everything fits perfectly in its little Hollywood place when the books find third gear. The pace finds a nice stride while Wolf wanders the open prairie or deals with some particularly truculent cowpunchers. With some massaging it could be easily adapted to a TV adaptation or – heaven forbid- audio drama.

Unfortunately a good deal of the historical references in Wolf Stockburn are as ham-fisted as a TV show attempting to communicate something to a broad demographic. It’s not enough that Stockburn is good at riding a horse and had a job before he was a detective, he has to have been a rider for the Pony Express. His friend can’t just have killed himself, it has to have happened via a cable car while in San Francisco. Stockburn can’t just have dual pistols, they have to be Colt Peacemakers with pearl grips and a Winchester Yellowboy repeater in the saddle holster. Everything around Stockburn is the Western equivalent of being brand-name with the label pointed directly at the camera. Were the story set in a more populous area I’d reckon the book would quickly become Forrest Gump: Manifest Destiny Edition with how many times Stockburn flirts with being a historically important character. He has supernatural luck, is an endless font of talents, and has a knack for knowing exactly what he needs to know in every situation. To the point it feels refreshing in Hell’s Jaw Pass when the concept of other characters knowing things Stockburn doesn’t is introduced.

Being your local neighborhood train nerd, the most grating example of the history aspect of Wolf Stockburn falling short is in the railroads on which Stockburn is a detective. Wolf Stockburn focuses on minutiae of physical objects to add a layer of artificial authenticity to O’Hara’s world that’s otherwise a mile wide and an inch deep. Guns are described by caliber, model name, and even year of production for gun nerds. Horses are lovingly depicted with tons of breeds and coloration jargon brought in for horse nerds. But it all falls apart when a train enters the equation. Every locomotive seen or mentioned is passing is referred to as “a Baldwin locomotive.”

Baldwin was a massive producer of locomotives in the late 19th/early 20th century but they certainly weren’t the only game in town. The Northern Pacific railroad featured in the book did own a lot of Baldwins, but ten seconds of Googling shows there was far more variety on the rails than Stockburn suggests. For the sake of being petty: here’s a quick run-down of companies besides Baldwin the NP contracted for just the classic “old west” 4-4-0 American class locomotives: 

  • Rome Locomotive Company
  • Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works
  • The Portland Company
  • Dickson Manufacturing Company
  • Rhode Island Locomotive Works
  • McQueen Locomotive Works (ka-chow)
  • Pittsburgh Locomotive and Car Works
  • Taunton Locomotive Manufacturing Company
  • Schenectady Locomotive Works
  • Grant Locomotive Works
  • New York Locomotive Works
  • Hinkley Locomotive Works

Characters in Wolf Stockburn simply referring to a locomotive generically as “Baldwin locomotives” is akin to me gesturing at a passing car and saying “there goes a Ford car.” There’s a not-insignificant chance it might be a Ford, but it could also be one of a dozen other brands with distinctive visual differences that immediately stand out to anyone who sees cars on a regular basis. If anything, there were more manufacturers of locomotives in the late 1890s than there are domestic manufacturers of cars in the United States today. This genericization of railroad knowledge also leads to O’Hara displaying a lack of easily-Googleable knowledge about how a locomotive even works. In the cold open of Wolf Stockburn an engineer has to quickly brake to stop in reaction to dynamite blowing up the track in front of him. Said engineer “pulls the chain to set the brakes, which grind and scream as they assault the wheels.” There’s just one problem: the brakes on a steam locomotive are set with a lever. 

Train pedants will defend this by reminding me there actually was a braking system that was a big chain the engineer would pull to set all brakes on the train at once. This system was widely out of usage by the 1870s, as it sucked. What is far more likely happening in this scene is O’Hara, having just written about said engineer pulling a chain to sound a whistle several paragraphs prior, felt it made sense there’d also be a chain to pull for brakes. 

Perhaps this feels like splitting hairs for me to hyper-focus on the specifics of how one would stop a train but I remind you the title of the book is Wolf Stockburn, Railroad Detective. There’s a train on all three extant Stockburn novels. The nonsensical catchphrase on the first two book covers is “This train’s bound for glory…” The very title tempts those who’re into trains and Old West fiction featuring them. I’d be just as up in arms if O’Hara had written a cop procedural set in 1970s New York in which a truculent detective pulled a lever to set the acceleration of his Crown Royal patrol car.

One has to unfocus their brain a little bit to enjoy Wolf Stockburn, Railroad Detective, forgiving both the historical inaccuracies and the anachronisms. Such as the moment when the crooked sheriff character flips off Stockburn’s plucky sidekick. Problem is, way back in the beginning of the book it’s established this adventure takes place somewhere around 1895. The first photographed example of the middle finger explicitly being used as an offensive gesture in the US won’t take place for four years. 

For this scene to track Belle (de facto sheriff of a podunk Dakota territory so far from civilization they get a newspaper a month maybe) would have to know someone who has been to the eastern seaboard to learn the gesture as an insult and came back to the podunk town. Then, to complete the cycle, Hank (a midwest rancher’s Methodist daughter who attended college in St. Louis) would have had to have learned it from someone in passing. 

Things aren’t all bad in O’Hara’s ramshackle representation of the 19th century, though. It’s got to be one of the cleanest worlds I’ve encountered in a fantasy book. Sure, the physical dirt is there. Dust and grime coat every surface. Stockburn regularly has to clean himself of the dust collected while riding. No, I mean clean in the other senses. Wolf Stockburn, Railroad Detective’s world is so santisized it feels like a Hollywood movie filmed during the Hays Code. Everyone is chaste to the point of comedy. Characters experiencing the worst pain of their lives can only muster as much as a “son of Satan” when shouting their final words. Sex technically exists, along with sex work, but it’s addressed as vaguely as a Disneyland dark ride would. No swearing, no fucking. Living in O’Hara’s interpretation of the Dakota territory is enough to make someone downright truculent. An endless, clean hell where characters feel like video game NPCs who’ll despawn the second Stockburn leaves the town. 

Forever trapped in a PG-13 world. O’Hara has no qualms describing brutal gunfights with George R.R. Martin levels of viscera and violence but sexuality dare not cross in front of the camera. Stockburn’s first interaction with a woman in the book is an old fuck-buddy. The closest Wolf Stockburn and Hells Jaw Pass get to having a sex scene is one sentence at the beginning of Wolf Stockburn Wolf and his fuck buddy waiting out a storm by “sheltering from the storm in their own special way, groaning and sighing and nibbling each other’s parts…” 

Props to O’Hara for writing what might be the first Western protagonist to canonically perform cunnilingus but the delivery leaves much to be desired. That, and save for this scene the grizzled detective is written like The Sheepish Option in a high school dating simulator. Any time a woman so much as compliments Stockburn he blushes and gets flustered. The man all but rubs the tip of his right boot in the dirt and says “awe shucks” with how gee-willikers this hardened killer becomes at the sight of someone with boobs complimenting him.

Perhaps it’s for the best the world according to O’Hara is PG-13. Women in Wolf Stockburn exist to be described based on how pretty they are in Stockburn’s eyes, whether or not they want to fuck Stockburn, and inevitably they will end up in some form of danger. Well, one of three forms of danger: death, the threat of sexual assault or old-fashioned torture. Stockburn’s plucky sidekick for the back half of the book – a glorified security guard named Hank – only becomes his plucky sidekick after Stockburn’s refusal to travel with her leads to her getting stripped nude and tortured with cigarettes by cowpunchers. Only after she’s been traumatized can Stockburn be cajoled into partaking in the tried and true “old gunslinger with a peppy young accomplice” trope. 

In conclusion, to end this like O’Hara would: Wolf Stockburn is exactly the kind of book you’d expect an ex-trucker to write. It’s the reading equivalent of watching a garbage reality TV show because the formula of it all is comforting. Hell’s Jaw Pass is also a shit book but it’s a better book in every respect, includes a substantive train scene, and functions better as a first Wolf Stockburn adventure than the book named after him.

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