Whenever a book comes out of nowhere for me, when I read a book I'd never even heard of and find that it's spectacularly good, these days that book often comes from Stark House. That's the case with FLINT, a Western originally published in 1957 under the by-line Gil Dodge. The real author behind that name is Arnold Hano, perhaps best known as the editor of the influential paperback house Lion Books but also a fine writer himself. FLINT looks like a typical Fifties Western paperback, doesn't it?
Well, it isn't. Not hardly, to quote John Wayne in BIG JAKE.
The set-up isn't that unusual, though. The narrator, Flint, is a hired killer who has put up his gun and "retired" to a small farm in Arizona. He's living there under an assumed identity because he's wanted in any number of states and territories, and he's also living on borrowed time because he suffered a serious wound during a shootout with a posse several years earlier, and the lingering effects of that injury are sure to kill him at an early age.
Flint just wants to be left alone, but then a representative from a Colorado cattle baron shows up and threatens to expose his real identity to the law unless Flint travels to Colorado and kills a couple of men for the cattle baron. Reluctantly, Flint accepts the job.
That's a fairly standard plot opening, but Hano's fine writing elevates it. Flint is a compelling narrator, a well-read, well-spoken, deeply melancholy man. Despite that, you might think you know where this one is going.
Once Flint reaches Colorado, though, the story begins to take one unexpected turn after another. Not everything is what it appears to be, and after a while you start to wonder if Flint himself is the person he seemed to be at first. Hano peels away the layers of deception slowly and carefully, and FLINT becomes a classic novel of lust, murder, and bleak desperation, as much so as any of the Gold Medals, Dells, etc., from the same era.
This is one of the best Western noir novels I've ever read. In its style, in its characters, in the risks it attempts (and pulls off), FLINT is remarkable. I give it a very high recommendation, and luckily you can read it in the new Stark House volume in which it's included, 3 STEPS TO HELL, which also includes the novels SO I'M A HEEL (originally published under the name Mike Heller) and THE BIG OUT. I'll be getting to them pretty soon, I expect.