Master stylist and storyteller Estleman, who writes mainly about professionals like himself, offers a gilded companion to The Master Executioner (2001).
The protagonist of that previous volume was a hangman; here, the expert is an undertaker. Three months before the turn of the 20th century, famed capitalist Elihu Warrick has shot himself in the head in his first-class stateroom on the Michigan Central railroad. To save the market, five colossal stockbrokers in New York decide that Warrick’s suicide must be passed off as a natural death, with his open casket on display. They call in Richard Connable, retired master of the Dismal Trade and artist of the Connable Method for preparing bodies for burial. He leaves at once from his home in Buffalo to claim the cadaver in Cleveland. Meanwhile, Richard’s badly run-down wife, Lucy, thinks of her spouse as “elephantiastically unobservant.” Lucy too has washed and painted corpses; now she’s afraid her own skull shows through as she goes to Richard’s old funeral parlor to choose her casket while he’s away. Her thoughts turn to their past. During the Civil War, young Richard, at the time an apprentice to his undertaker father, restored for burial Lucy’s dead brother’s ruined head. He and Lucy married, moved to San Francisco, built and opened a funeral parlor. Driven out of town by a crooked colonel, they moved with daughter Victoria to Fort Hays, Kan., where Sheriff Wild Bill Hickok resolved a problem for Richard with the four Rooneys’ cheapo mortuary. Spiritual events drive the Connables to many towns before settling down in Buffalo. But tragic moments have already come, more strongly than the reader foresees.
Tons of absorbing scenes of embalming and cosmetic restoration—but no ghastly Wisconsin Death Trip. (Winner of The Kirkus Award for Hand-Carved Walnut Historical Prose 2005.)