The Master Executioner

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Without stretching the comparison too far, it is safe to say that calling Loren D. Estleman's The Master Executioner a Western is like calling Moby Dick a sea story. Though set in the rough-and-tumble landscape of Kansas, Colorado, and other western states during the turbulent years of the 1870's through the 1890's, Estleman's novel is less about the excitement and danger of surviving in frontier towns than it is about the psyche of his main character, Oscar Stone, who makes his living as a professional executioner.

The plot is simple enough. Stone grows up in a poor family in Pennsylvania, learns carpentry, takes a young bride over the objections of her father, and moves west to make his fortune. Arriving in Kansas as the population boom is subsiding, Stone finds that his skills as a carpenter are less in demand than he had anticipated; but a commission to construct a gallows causes him to cross paths with Fabian Rudd, the hangman employed by the U.S. Army at Fort Leavenworth. Hanging pays better than carpentry, and Stone finds he likes the trade, so he abandons his wife in Topeka to learn the science of hanging from Rudd. Quickly surpassing his teacher, Stone goes on to become the most noted and sought-after hangman in the West. Yet his thirty-year career never brings him happiness, for no one likes a hangman, and comfort is found most often at the bottom of a bottle of whiskey.

Like his hero, Estleman is a master at his craft, demonstrating exceptional skill in using the generic conventions of the Western to explore universal human concerns: the need to excel in one's chosen profession, the need to establish strong family relationships, and the need to preserve order both in one's life and in society. The Master Executioner will haunt readers' memories long after they have finished reading Estleman's not-so-surprising ending.