Stories of a Hangman

by Ryan Surprise. White Bird Publications, 2021.

Review by Julia Martinez

Stories of a Hangman is a novel divided into a brief prologue about the origins of this infamous Wyoming Territory hangman, plus chapters describing the crimes for each guilty prisoner, and an epic prologue that truly transcends the reader into a euphoric feeling. The book is constructed into fourteen chapters, with titles such as “The Hanging of a Drunkard,” “The Hanging of a Vengeful Man,” “Hanging of a Salesman,” etc. Each chapter has the hangman’s own reflections, thoughts, and inner emotions written in the last pages, a truly fascinating take on the hangman’s job.

When a reader is taken through the Old Wild West, they are acquainted with dialogue of characters with deep Western jargon as well as their suitable professions. It truly is a blast from the past, with smalltown Marshals and deputies riding horseback through the mountains to catch criminals, as well as a glance into prostitutes’ daily life in a brothel.

The hangman, being the focus of each tragic end to every chapter, started from a family lineage of hangmen. His father was a hangman, and after his death, the son continued the profession. Where there was the Wild West, there were crimes, and most necessarily a hangman was in need. During the prologue, we are introduced with the question; why did the father end his life in the fashion he did? Surprise writes “Maybe one day it will reveal to me what he was thinking, either on that day or the day he killed that man.” And after the reader is taken thoroughly through thirteen hangings, it comes clear to both the reader and the hangman of these reasons.

Without revealing too much, each story pertaining to the accused is revealed for their crimes in great detail. The reader is always left with the feeling of suspense, gripping onto the pages, always wondering if they will be found guilty and sentenced to the notorious hangman. There are some instances in which the reader can not help but feel remorse for the guilty verdict given to the criminal being sent to the gallows. In some of these cases, it was revealed that a woman acted in self defense against a violent man, or a young boy was too intoxicated to understand that his confidence level could result in fatal injuries to an unexpecting townsfolk. As each chapter comes to an end, there is another where themes of deception, greed, and murder tantalize the reader’s imagination.

It’s clear that author Ryan Surprise has a brilliant understanding of the setting and of captivatingly quick character development in Stories of a Hangman, a great delight to anyone who is interested in Old Western history and fiction. Surprise is skillful to develop his characters and their relationships to construct a convincing plot for each tale to unfold. I can’t help but feel the need for more future insights and stories that the hangman might be plagued with after the novel ends. But perhaps this is where Surprise leaves the true ending of the hangman up to the reader’s interpretation.

Julia Martinez

Julia Martinez is a junior majoring in English and writing at Carroll University, with a near completion of an Associate of Science degree at Milwaukee Area Technical College. She enjoys reading dystopian fantasy novels, attending concerts of all genres of music, and traveling to new destinations. She plans to pursue a career as an attorney.

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