The Magazine

Man of Mystery

The case for the novels of Loren D. Estleman.

Jul 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 40 • By JON L. BREEN
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The similarly structured The Undertaker's Wife illuminates 19th-century mortuary practices. We first meet the famous restorer of corpses, Richard Connable, late in his career, near the turn of the 20th century. Elihu Warrick, "the well-known Chicago speculator, railroad investor, and meatpacking magnate," has committed suicide while en route from New York on the Michigan Central. Connable, though semiretired, at least in the mind of his wife Lucy, is summoned from Buffalo to Cleveland to prepare the deceased for an open-casket funeral, while concealing the bullet wound in Warrick's head lest the fact of his suicide cause a shareholders' panic.

The action flashes back to Civil War-era Monroe, Michigan, where Lucy is first attracted to Richard because of his remarkable job reconstructing the ravaged face of her twin brother, a Union infantryman killed in an explosion. Their personal and professional story continues in San Francisco and several other points along the way, including Hays City, Kansas, where the colorful sheriff, Wild Bill Hickok, sends Connable considerable business.

With the violence mostly offstage, the emphasis is on the characters. Neither a traditional Western nor a mystery nor even a crime story, The Undertaker's Wife is more than anything a study of marriage.

Estleman's Writing the Popular Novel (2004), which can be recommended for its insights and entertainment value even to those who never intend to write a word for publication, reveals much about his outlook and methods. Though a language purist who spends a whole chapter called "Gears and Pulleys" on English mechanics, he is enough of a maverick to defend the use of contact as a verb on the reasonable ground that no single word does the same job.

In excerpts from a journal he kept while writing Bloody Season (1988), a novel of the OK Corral gunfight closely based on the historical record, he describes the process of making a credible fictional character from an extremely contradictory historical personage, Wyatt Earp. How could the same man have both Earp's positive attributes (solid friendships, devotion to duty, fidelity to second wife) and his negative ones (desertion of first wife, arrests for horse thievery, and a confidence game)? At first believing Earp was essentially a gambler, Estleman finally decided the key that explained the complex Earp was something he constantly reiterated to interviewers: He was a businessman.

For all the admiring reviews and steady sales his books have received, a great popular writer may be passing under the radar. When it was suggested that his writing manual should have "a subtitle promising lessons on how to write a best-selling novel," Estleman had to point out a hitch: "I explained that since I'd never written a best-selling novel, I wouldn't know where to begin. This confession surprised some editors, who assumed that because my name had been around since man learned to walk upright, I must have cracked the venerated New York Times list many times. My sales have always been respectable, although not spectacular."

Given that Estleman is as outstanding and as accessible a writer as any regular inhabitant of the lists--indeed, vastly better than most--I can only wonder why everyone isn't reading him.

Jon L. Breen is the author, most recently, of Eye of God.