The Master Executioner by Loren D. Estleman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
These days it is popular to tell people to work and what they love and success will be sure to follow. The Master Executioner is about a man who takes this advice and its impact on his life.
This is not my grandfather’s western. It is a modern novel that happens to take place in the years just after the Civil War and before the turn of the century, when people were migrating in hordes from east to west and industrial innovations were happening so fast the landscape could change from year to year.
Oscar Stone is a pragmatist. After abandoning his father’s farm and serving in the Union army during the war, he decides to leave the east completely and travel to Missouri. He reasons that with a building boom going on, carpenters will be in short supply, so he apprentices and becomes an excellent carpenter. From his master he receives advice, which he takes to heart about being a craftsman and being meticulous and knowledgeable about your work. During his last months in the war, he sees a lynching, badly handled, and this affects him profoundly.
While apprenticed, Oscar meets a young woman and applies his formidable honesty and persistence in winning over her reluctant father and they take a wagon train west. But they are late to the party. There is a surfeit of carpenters and Oscar has a hard time finding work. Finally, he takes a temporary job building a gallows and meets Rudd, a master hangman. Rudd tells Oscar the young man has a gift and would likely make an excellent hangman. It is steady employment, and best of all, a chance to experience satisfaction in a job well done. Rudd offers to teach him everything he knows, and eventually, over his own misgivings, and his wife’s flat opposition, Oscar becomes the hangman’s apprentice. It is an experience and occupation that is both more satisfying and more unforgiving than he could ever have expected. He loses his wife over it and the majority of the book covers his subsequent career and attempts to locate her.
This is not a book of self-examination. Though generally more honest with himself than most people, Oscar Stone is not that kind of man. And Estleman deliberately confines himself to Oscar’s actions and conversations, leaving it open about what the man actually feels which makes it ironically easier to understand him.
Though the novel is full of criminals, each walks the stage for a short time only, which makes it all the more remarkable that Estleman’s clear writing can make them all so human and mostly pitiable. Oscar, however, remains the star, a man of neat habits who looks more like a banker than a hangman, a problem-solver, and a man who takes pride in providing each client with a swift and painless death.
Eventually Oscar finds his wife again and once more his life is altered permanently. The ending is one of those which seems inevitable and is therefore satisfying, but you don’t anticipate it because Estleman’s writing is like setting yourself afloat in a briskly moving creek – you go with the flow and are content to do so. In their ways, so did Rudd the hangman, and his apprentice Oscar Stone.
Historical novels about the old west are not a usual choice for me, but the subject and the sample I read made me want more so I bought the book. I am very glad I did.