Friday, August 25, 2017

Forgotten Books: The Last Notch - Arnold Hano

Arnold Hano is best known for his sports non-fiction and for being the editor at Lion Books during the Fifties who nurtured the careers of Jim Thompson, Richard Matheson, and many other top-notch noir and crime novelists. But he also wrote a number of dark, suspenseful Western novels under a couple of different pseudonyms. Stark House Press is reprinting one of them, THE LAST NOTCH, originally published as by Matthew Gant, as part of its Black Gat Books line.

THE LAST NOTCH is based on some historical background that occurred in New Mexico Territory during the 1870s, Governor Lew Wallace’s attempt to offer amnesty to Billy the Kid and other gunmen and outlaws in the territory, in order to prevent another outbreak of bloody violence like the one that took place during the Lincoln County War.

Hano fictionalizes this considerably, changing the names while keeping the personalities and events fairly accurate, then dropping his protagonist, Ben Slattery, down in the middle of them. Slattery is a fast gun and a hired killer, but he’s tired of that life and wants the governor’s amnesty. He wants to be able to quit worrying about the Kid, who’s eager to have a showdown with him and find out which one of them is truly faster on the draw. Before Slattery can escape from his past, though, he has to do one last job, make one last kill, for the biggest price he’s ever gotten.

All you have to hear is “one last job”, and you know things aren’t going to go well for Slattery. Sure enough, they don’t, in as neat a twist as you’ll find in a Western novel. How bad things can get, and whether or not Slattery survives, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

THE LAST NOTCH is really a superbly written novel, vivid in its setting and its characters. There’s not a lot of action; guns go off, but this is about as far from a powder-burning shoot-’em-up as you can get. It’s very suspenseful and fast-paced despite that, with some great confrontations between Slattery and the Kid (who’s obviously Billy, although not called that). This novel reminded me of the work of H.A. DeRosso, who Hano edited at Lion Books, and Lewis B. Patten with its bleak outlook on the Old West. Highly recommended.


Peter Brandvold said...

I've been wondering about this book. Thanks for reviewing it, James.

Anonymous said...

Is Harvey going to be an issue for you and yours?

James Reasoner said...

Well, yes and no. We're not in any personal danger because we're home at the moment, nearly 400 miles inland. But the storm is supposed to make landfall very near our place down in Rockport. Our cabin is ten blocks away from the water and on slightly higher ground, so we're hoping the storm surge won't get there. Likely the real danger to it will be from the wind and all the trees around it that could topple. We're monitoring the situation as best we can, since that's really all we can do. There's nothing in the cabin of any real sentimental value, other than the place itself, where we had a lot of good times and I wrote a bunch of pages.