Monday, November 4, 2013

Loren D. Estleman, The Master Executioner

Published in 2001, this novel captures something of the sobering mood of that year. It’s about life and death and choices with unexpected consequences. Not really a story, it’s a character study of a young man emotionally marked by wartime atrocity. A Union soldier, still in his teens, he is witness to a clumsy and ghastly execution by hanging.

At war’s end, Oscar Stone is scarcely eighteen years old and the only surviving member of his family, his one brother dead and buried on the fields of Gettysburg. In need of stability and purpose, he resolves to marry and devote his life to a reliable trade. Temperament makes of him a man determined to not simply be good at what he does, but to become a master practitioner. That and pure circumstance lead him into a dark and singular profession. He becomes a hangman.

Plot. Oscar first apprentices to a carpenter, intending to take his skills to the West, where the building of new frontier towns would guarantee him a livelihood. He chooses a wife in the same way, a pretty girl who would be a boon companion and provide him with children. Against her family’s wishes, the newlyweds set out for Kansas.

Alas, Topeka is already well supplied with carpenters, and he gets a job no one else wants—building a gallows. The thoroughness of his work impresses the professional hangman, Fabian Rudd, hired to perform the execution. Before long Oscar has fallen under the man’s influence. Horrified, his wife leaves him.

Public hanging, 1862
Called to a job in Denver, he designs and supervises the construction of a gallows capable of hanging six men at once. The successful dispatch of six convicts wins headlines in newspapers around the country and swiftly builds his reputation. More compelling to him than the publicity is the realization that he has found his true calling.

He also discovers that there is a sudden demand for his talents, mostly in the West, where unlike the East there is little public outcry against capital punishment. Traveling by train and staying in the best hotels, he establishes a comfortable routine. We only sense that something is amiss when he begins drinking more and more regularly. Eventually, alcohol contributes to a bungled execution and produces a momentary crisis of conscience.

Meanwhile, he hires the Pinkertons to search for his missing wife, who has disappeared without a trace. All he knows is that she was last seen traveling with a small boy, who Oscar assumes is his son. After a decade, he has no more than a letter from her assuring him that any effort to find her will be fruitless.

Character. Estleman creates a wonderfully complex character in Oscar, who finds in himself the ability to be a methodical, coldly rational killer. He can do what he does by being emotionally detached from it, focusing instead on perfecting his skill.

In ensuring the respectful treatment and clean, swift demise of the condemned, he regards his work as humane. To avoid awkward displays by those unready for execution, he slips them a bottle of whiskey to calm their nerves. For his own part, as he sees it, he is only an instrument of justice.

Caruso in Puccni's La fanciulla del West, 1910 
But the job also leaves him emotionally detached from himself. While he enjoys a feeling of satisfaction in perfect mastery of his work, he discovers in time that he is lonely and bored. He has been damaged in some way, one suspects by the traumatic experience of the war, which is then compounded by his becoming a professional agent of death.

In moments of self-doubt, he regrets what he’s done with his life. If he’d become a carpenter, as he once planned, he’d still have his wife. But the war taught him not to waste time reflecting on roads not taken. Eventually, he is overcome by a sense of futility. All choices seem to have results that are fatal.

Style. As a master of storytelling, Estleman has a gift for irony. Here the irony is dark and not merely amusing. The opening chapters are stone cold sober until Oscar is called upon to translate when Indians stop a wagon train and want to communicate in German. The son of German immigrants, he knows enough of the language to help negotiate a trade for safe passage. It’s a wryly unexpected moment in his journey to the West.

Then irony is ushered in at full measure with the introduction of the hangman Rudd, who hardly ever speaks a line without a twist embedded in it. He has come to terms with an imperfect world by never taking it too seriously—and by staying always a bit inebriated. Meanwhile, his extensive knowledge of the art of hanging is full of surprises for any reader who has never given the practice much thought.

Estleman’s characters, whether central to the story or walk-ons, spring from the page fully formed. Much of their individuality comes across in the way they express themselves. While Rudd’s talk is laced with attitude and indirection, Oscar means exactly what he says, his speech measured and precise. “Nothing has surprised me since the war,” he says flatly at one point.

Other characters pass only briefly through Oscar’s life. The truculent carpenter who teaches him his trade is given to aphorisms: “A master never leaves himself a reason to fail,” he opines. Of the other characters, many are law officers or convicts. Each is clearly drawn and distinctly different in both personality and physical appearance.

Wrapping up. Westerns usually take expansion into the West as an inevitability—call it Manifest Destiny. Starting out as the novel does with a wagon train onto the prairies, we expect a similar story of a young married couple forging a life together. Hard working, decent, honest people, they are destined to grow and prosper as settlers of the new land.

What we get instead is a story of how a decent, honest, hard-working man makes a choice that destines him to quite a different fate. While the novel has its moments of humor, there’s a melancholy in its later chapters, which question how much one can exert control over life’s outcomes—for oneself or others. The novel becomes a philosophical question about life and death, yes, but it is smartly and entertainingly asked.

The Master Executioner is currently available at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks.

Further reading:
BITS reviews of other books by Loren D. Estleman

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Silver Lode (1954)


  1. Mr. Estleman writes characters that stick long after one stops reading.

  2. I have always felt Estleman stood in Leonard's shadow too much. He is quite a great writer.

  3. I like reading Estleman's stuff and this was one of my favorites.

  4. Great review. I've read some Estleman, but not this one-- will have to get on it.

  5. I agree with David. Estleman creates some memorable lead characters who are central to his riveting stories. I haven't read this book.

  6. I like Estleman's short fiction a lot. Need to give the longer work a try.