The Master Executioner BOOK review [Loren D. Estleman]

Book Reviews
The Master Executioner BOOK review [Loren D. Estleman]
Sep 16, 2002, 02:37

THE MASTER EXECUTIONER by Loren D. Estleman; Forge, 2001

Like Joe Lansdale and Bill Pronzini, Loren Estleman in some ways recalls an earlier era in publishing, in which writers worked in a variety of different genres, following the demands of the marketplace. A cursory look at his body of work reveals a restless intellect who refuses to be pigeonholed: from his long-running Amos Walker detective series and his historical Detroit novels to the recent run of quietly brilliant Westerns such as The Journey of the Dead and Billy Gashade, Estleman shows himself to be a virtual encyclopedia of popular culture.

The Master Executioner, his latest novel, is set in the Old West and chronicles the life of Oscar Stone, professional hangman non-pareil. Beginning his trade on the East Coast as an apprentice to a master carpenter, the young Stone heads west with his new bride to take advantage of the work possibilities presented by the burgeoning frontier cities. One of his first jobs is to design and construct a gallows. He soon befriends the hangman, an alcoholic eccentric named Rudd who's devoted his life to studying his craft and performing clean, humane executions. Rudd collects books about trap mechanisms and historical hangmen, and tells Stone about his dream of writing the definitive work on the subject.  

As Stone assists Rudd in the design of the gallows, he finds that he possesses a natural talent for it, and the older hangman, detecting in Stone a protege, encourages him to join this solitary profession. Stone's decision to become a hangman ultimately loses him his wife, who finds his work abhorrent, but for the next 25 years he establishes himself as the West's premier hangman. His early invention of a six-man gallows cements Stone's reputation for cold precision and efficiency. Like his mentor, Stone retreats into himself, becomes obsessed with the mechanics of his work, finds solace in the bottle.

In this fascinating character study, Estleman shows us the arch of a man's life. As the novel draws to its perfectly crafted conclusion, and as Stone slowly unravels psychologically, the aging hangman is forced to confront a terrible truth from his past. The Master Executioner is a complex, dignified work and is Estleman at the height of his powers.

-Patrick Millikin

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