The Master Executioner by Loren D. Estleman

The Master ExecutionerThe 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.

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Sometimes I can almost taste a different life

Where foods that never touched

my tongue

are familiar

Where smells I can’t

remember are



I can taste the still, busy air

layered with lives

soaked with labor’s sweat

washed with cheap soap

floating down hallways in

crowded buildings

Fatigue and love and someone else’s

hate are buried

in the old wood of the door frames above

the flaked thin carpet

where I never walked


August Writing Challenge

Via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this month, I was invited to participate with three other writers in a 100 words a day challenge. Though we are free to write more than 100 words, I wanted to stay as close to the minimum as possible, since finding words has never been my problem, pruning judiciously is.

Here are the first week’s snippets, not including the first day, because I started later in the month.

Day 2 – Wednesday, August 05, 2015

It was a broken smile. Though the corners could still turn upwards, there was a shadow in each preventing the mouth from moving beyond simulated to heartfelt. One shadow was disappointment. The other was resignation. The lips themselves held a minute tremor, as if at any moment, they might give up trying to smile and collapse into a default position of ugly weeping. Above them, the eyes closed, imploring the brain for a distraction. But the brain was not listening; it had abandoned the present for the past. And underneath them all, the heart continued to pace madly in its cage, wanting nothing so much but to stop caring.

Day 3 – Thursday, August 06, 2015

She took his heart like the keys to a new house, exclaiming over its virtues; the vaulted ceilings, the spacious chambers. She went through every room, hanging new pictures and painting the walls in combinations of colours he had never seen before. She placed new furniture and pulled off the old drapes to let in expanses of sunlight. Through the open windows he saw parklands filled with laughing families; there was a breeze that smelled of Sunday pancake breakfasts. She worked with certainty, aligning memories to a gentle alphabet and when she was finished, his heart had become a home for them both.

Day 4 – Friday, August 07, 2015

Outside, I saw a dead rat. He looked alive: his small, round black eyes shiny, his brown-ticked fur clean and groomed. Was he dead?

There was no blood; no deformity that argued for death by car. What he could have died of; be dying of?

I brought my shovel and dug a hole. Had he died slowly? Killed by something I couldn’t see? If I left him, could he recover or might his body poison another animal? Was he dead?

I put him into the hole and watched him. After a while, I shoveled in the loose dirt, stamped it down and walked away. Was he dead or only soon to be dead? I wondered.

Day 5 – Saturday, August 8, 2015

“Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!” She pushed herself away from him and slid along the wall to the door of the classroom, where she stood, pounding a fist against the frame. “You have no idea how much I hate you at this minute. How much I wish I could just let myself go and kill you. It would be such a relief to stop trying to be reasonable, stop trying not to interfere. I want to interfere with you. I want to use a knife and interfere with you in a big way.” Her black eyes were stark in her white face. “I think killing you would give me an orgasm.”

Bone Song by John Meaney

Bone Song (Tristopolis, #1)Bone Song by John Meaney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m really glad I picked this one up. The mystery being investigated in the book is pretty standard fare, but the worldbuilding!

Meaney has created a society that runs on bones – all of the energy in Tristopolis comes from a necrofusion center where the bones of tortured souls are fuel. Bound spirits also exist in everything else: furniture, elevators, cars… you name it and there’s likely someone’s soul inhabiting it. As you might guess, some people treat those spirits better than others, like Detective Lieutenant Donal Riordan, who is friendly with the guy at HQ’s front desk – or rather the guy who is HQ’s front desk, the huge police wolves, the #7 elevator, and even zombies.

Riordan’s world is a dark one literally – the sky is always dark purple in his city – and figuratively – only the really wealthy are able to bury their dead in catacombs; everyone else is fuel. There’s the usual class divide and corruption, but now something new has been added: bone collectors. These people don’t want to wait until an artist or performer dies to bid on the memories their bones hold. Instead, they’ve created a conspiracy to kill them before their time and steal the bones.

In trying to stop them, Riordan will join a special task force headed up by a beautiful zombie, become friends with some of the most respected forensic bone listeners, and fight against powerful dark mages.

Bone Song is like Raymond Chandler was recreated using some genetic material from Brian Lumley and Tom Clancy. It’s fast moving, entertaining, and dark without noir’s usual cynicism.

I was so enthralled by the world Riordan lives in that I bought the sequel, Dark Blood the same night I finished reading Bone Song. Fascinating world, interesting characters.

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The Musings of PontiViro

I haven’t been posting here much partly because I got trapped in the alternate universe that is, trying to find an elusive ancestor (I did!) and also because without feedback, posting feels pretty lonely. I’ll try to post more here, but I promise nothing. Ha.


I’m considering a new novel, in its very early stages now, and as usual for me, this trying out begins with a conversation with a character. Pontiviro or ‘Viro as his friends call him, showed up one day and just started talking. I still don’t know where he lives, exactly, and what may be going on, but here’s what he had to say to me:

hand holding stone

The Musings of PontiViro

You might say that since I fell in love with Cadio Barbet, I’ve done and seen more than any compact person might have done and seen. But it being an unrequited love tends to take a little of the sheen off of the accomplishments. At least I have him to myself, since there’s not a chance in a frozen hell that he would ever be interested in anyone else, man or woman, compact or full-size.

Sometimes I think things could be improved if Cadio would allow for a sexual relationship, if not a mutually-doting one. But when I brought it up, he considered me through his spectacles for a long minute, so that I knew he was taking my request seriously, then said, “No. No, thank you” and resumed reading.

I knew it wasn’t a reflection on me. Some folk would have an aversion to thinking about lovemaking with a compact man – otherwise known pejoratively as midgets – alright, probably most folk in this country. But not Cadio. He is the least prejudiced person I’ve ever met. He’s also the least interested person I’ve ever met.

Notice that I didn’t say he was uninteresting. Because he isn’t, and I’ve got a few scars to prove just how interesting he can be to others.

If Cadio is his real name and who he might otherwise be, I’ve no idea. And not for lack of trying. But he won’t talk about himself. Oh, once in a while, he’ll say something that seems to be a clue, but then at another time, he’ll say something that contradicts the first something. I used to keep a journal of the somethings, but it got tiresome once I became aware that anything he says about himself is likely a lie of some sort and that he does it on purpose. Probably. I’m not even sure about that.

I suspect him of purposely giving false information despite that I think that, without me to watch out for him, he would probably have been eaten by a beast or drowned crossing a river while trying to read a book. He can’t tell the honest from the dishonest and is clumsy enough with others that it would be hard to attribute any ability to dissemble to him at all. He depends too much on his magical abilities to get him out of trouble he should not have fallen into in the first place, but his magical talents are very great and lately I’m wondering if he didn’t also come out of the womb painted with a very wide lucky streak. Certainly, one of the luckiest things to happen to him is me.

It should be obvious that I am not from here. Where I am from, everyone is about my size. In this place, I choose to let everyone think that I am an oddity – one of their own that came out slightly different. Knowing what I now know, I will not tell anyone the name or location of my people and I pray that the difficulties I went through arriving here will prevent anyone else from doing so anytime soon.  An army of people ten and twelve of my hands taller than the mild – and somewhat boring – inhabitants of my home would be disastrous for my people, I think.  Better they should continue to live their quiet, isolated lives than be caught up in the chaos that is living in Verch among the Verchers.


Lately, I’m beginning to wonder if Cadio is as oblivious as he seems. Recently, I caught him looking at one of those traveling liars – people who sell an idea of something instead of the real thing – like a cure for baldness. This one did not seem particularly fresh to me; his idea was one I had heard frequently in the past month of traveling, becoming faster or stronger or smarter through focusing on a special stone for a set period of time each day. I was about to move on, certain Cadio had done, but he was still beside me, looking at the liar and there was something very like someone had mashed a sneer and a smile together on his face and then tried to hide it. His spectacles gleamed as the sun caught them, so I could not see his eyes, but that look – one I had never seen before – startled, and yes, unnerved me.

At that moment, the liar was juggling the stones he was selling and lying about how he had become quicker and more adroit because of his focusing. The stones seemed to go faster and faster, and the liar’s expression went from confident to delighted to uncertain then passed into nervousness and careened headlong into fear. He called out and a woman joined him on his improvised stage and he exhorted her to take the stones from his hands. She tried, but they only moved faster. No matter what that two did or how they moved, the stones continued their arc, flying round and round, faster and faster, until sweat began to pour from the liar’s face and the woman herself looked frantic.

Cadio walked off and perforce I followed him. When we returned that way some time later, the liar was on his back in the street, his face covered in sweat and his eyes haunted. There was a crowd around him. The woman was crying into her apron and a burly man was swinging with a cudgel at the stones, which evaded the wood and kept going round, while several people in the group made bets on whether the liar would die before the stones stopped and what the stones would do if that happened.

Cadio did not turn his head to look, nor did his hands make any gestures that I could see, and as a sometime picker of pockets, I think I would notice. But the stones suddenly came tumbling in a heap on the liar’s chest. The man took one long breath and sighed it out, then went unconscious. Those with bets settled them. The rest of the crowd looked disappointed at the entertainment’s tame closure and strode away back to their own business.

I looked at Cadio, who seemed to be talking to himself, as he sometimes did. “Stones,” I heard him say. “One has to have stones to sell stones.” Then he chuckled.

“Pardon?” I said, just to hear his reply.

He glanced at me, his grey eyes with a sort of light in them and said, “Maybe he needed more focus.” That is what passes for humour with him.

The Barrel Murder by Michael Zarocostas – A Book Review

THE BARREL MURDER - a Detective Joe Petrosino case (based on true events)THE BARREL MURDER – a Detective Joe Petrosino case by Michael Zarocostas

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book involved a lot of research because it is based on real events and real New York City detectives at the turn of the century.

A swarthy man who could be Italian or Middle Eastern is found murdered, his body bent double and stuffed into a wooden barrel on a New York street. These are the days when the NYC police force is dominated by Irish immigrants and there is considerable and open prejudice in the ranks against Italians and Jews, among others. Detective Joe Petrosino has been lucky; he was smiled upon by Teddy Roosevelt, who appointed him the first Italian American detective in the Central Bureau. Teddy was intent on removing graft and stamping out Tammany Hall and Joe is an honest cop. But Teddy has moved on to Washington, and Joe Petrosino can see the Tammany ways are back. He and other cops who stood for Reform are on the outs. This is not a good time to be fighting with the Irish cops over the murder of an unknown man in a barrel. But Joe just can’t help himself. And from there, things can only get worse.

Was it a crime of passion by a mentally disturbed doctor or was it really a message from a gang of drug dealers and counterfeiters who moved over from Sicily? And are they working on their own or with others? And might those others be people Joe knows and works for? Adding to his problems are a couple of muckraking journalists and an uncertainty about whether his big Jewish partner, Inspector Max Schmittberger, is really reformed from taking graft.

Michael Zarocostas does a good job of telling the facts and giving the reader just enough flavor of the times to stay engaged without getting bogged down. He is also faithful to the thinking of the times in that he does not pull any punches when it comes to the kind of talk people in Joe’s position may have both heard and engaged in, including racial slurs that are made more shocking by the offhand way in which they are uttered. Zarocostas’s prose itself is a little on the terse side. The connections between sentences and paragraphs is not always a smooth one, which makes the read a little bumpy.

The book is sprinkled with pictures of many of the main participants as well as photos of newspaper articles printed about them and the case as it unfolded which add to the sense of witnessing the events.

The only true disappointment in this book lies in the ending. It’s obviously the first book in a series, but it should have been able to stand alone. By the last chapter, Schmittberger has taken a leave and Joe has promised to talk to his lady friend’s father about marriage. But these relationships are not addressed. Further, Joe’s decision to take a risky action related to his career is only asserted, not depicted. We don’t know whether it succeeded, partially succeeded, or failed. No doubt readers will discover the answer in the second book, but it would have been nice to have some things made a little clearer.

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Tapped Out?

Image via Wikipedia Commons

I’ve been working on a short story. It’s supposed to be slightly horror – that is, it should unsettle the reader, though won’t likely scare anyone. A horrific thing happens and you can see the lead up to it, but because of the viewpoint, the reader never gets all the information and when the story concludes, they’re likely to have more questions than answers.

I’ve never written one like this before, and that was the point of it. I wanted to stretch myself, challenge myself as a writer, and so I came up with a few ideas that I thought might help me do that.

Problem is, I haven’t been working on it.

This may mean nothing – I haven’t been working on anything lately. I have a painting on my easel, just waiting for me to get back to it, a watercolour planned, a diorama kit of an abandoned gas station I’d like to get to, and some felt soft sculptures that need finishing. Instead, I’ve been thinking about other people’s writing, trying to make some room in my tiny cottage by going through three boxes of long unplayed LPs, gardening, and working on my family’s history.

This isn’t unusual for me. My creative output is always low because I’m easily distracted by all of the other things that interest me – volcanoes, history, political science, mind science, and everything I’ve never heard of before. Lately, I’ve had a near-obsession with and working my way up and down the family tree in every direction. This is complicated by the fact that I’m also working on my late husband’s family tree at the same time.

But getting back to the story.

So distraction is part of the problem, but I try to at least write 200 words a day. Very little, considering I have done upwards of 3-4K a day, when I’m on writing fire. Which I’m not with my writing lately. In the olden days, and with most of the very short fiction I post here, the writing sort of took off and I was just along for the ride. Hasn’t been like that with my longer works – I struggle to feel my way through as though I’m blindfolded rather than the helter-skelter gallop I have been used to and got high off of.

That’s obviously another part of the problem.

Distraction I can – and have – dealt with. But it’s not a problem, when I’m fully invested in the work. Yep, there’s the real issue – I’m not fully invested in the work. And I don’t know why. Other stories I’ve told were just as complicated and I had no difficulty starting or continuing. If anything, I had difficulty turning off the flow at any point.

The only thing that comes to mind is that maybe I’m overthinking. Trying to infuse what I write with as much literary goodness as possible might have sucked all the fun out of the process and caused the tap to close. And while the desire to open the tap is there, the handle seems to have been mislaid.

How I can fix this, I’m not sure. But I know that, in the meantime, I have to work on finding the discipline I need to continue putting the words down, even if they’re only 200 at a time. If I let myself off the hook for one day, getting back to it the next day is harder and the temptation to skip another day is easier.

One day, I hope I can find the handle for that tap and see my words flowing freely again. Until then, I’ll have to savor each drop I get.