Loren D. Estleman, Author . Forge $23.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-312

This superbly crafted novel of the American West not only outshines any of Estleman's 12 previous novels (Billy Gashade, etc.) with Forge, it also stands far above considerably weaker efforts currently being cranked out by many who still labor in this fading genre. Oscar Stone goes from being a carpenter to a hangman, "a master executioner" who heard his calling by accident—but once his talent is discovered, he embraces it to the exclusion of everything else, including his wife or any hope of an ordinary life. Fabian T. Rudd, a veteran executioner and frontier philosopher (and one of the most wonderfully original characters to come out of a western novel in years), tutors Stone in the finer points of death by hanging. The apprentice takes his lessons well beyond the fundamentals and elevates his profession from a mere vocation to a veritable art. He achieves personal (albeit dubious) celebrity as a result, but the darkness of his trade haunts the young man as he traverses the American West, dispensing the final act of justice, applying and always improving his expertise to guarantee an efficient and humane dispatch to some of the worst villains of the frontier. Eventually, Stone must come to terms with who he is and what he does. He tries to understand that to do a thing well and with respect is the greatest goal of human endeavor, no matter how grisly the particulars may be or how lonely he may become as a result. This excellent novel is well researched and effectively and unsentimentally delivered, with only the occasional anachronism marring a nearly perfect and historically accurate dramatization of the American West and the colorful people who built it. Print advertising in Western publications. (June)