There’s a beautiful reference guide compiled by Paul Bishop and Scott Harris titled “52 Weeks - 52 Western Novels” with an essay by author Peter Brandvold gushing about a 1953 paperback called “.44” by H.A. DeRosso. Brandvold makes the point that the short book is really a noir novel wrapped in western packaging. A western noir? Now, you’re speaking my language.
Dan Harland is a cowboy turned gunslinger turned assassin-for-hire. As the novel opens, a paid hit veers in an unexpected direction when his intended target - a fast draw named Lancaster - allows himself to be killed by Harland without putting up any resistance. Why would someone do that? It amounts to suicide and it begs a lot of questions that Harland wants answered. The experience of murdering a willing victim was profound enough to bring Harland to the conclusion that he’s had enough of the killing game. Lancaster could have easily shot Harland but instead chose to die. By Harland’s old-fashioned honor code, he owes Lancaster his life.
Harland was hired for the Lancaster hit by a middleman who refuses to share the identity of the ultimate client who paid for the job. Harland becomes obsessed with the idea of finding the hidden client, and he goes on an investigative quest to settle the score in Lancaster’s memory.
What we have here is a genuinely unique mystery where the murderer himself is on a journey to solve his own victim’s murder. The “hitman searches for his mystery client” story later became a recurring plotline in Max Allan Collins’ ‘Quarry’ series, but DeRosso’s take is a way darker, almost melancholy, work of noir fiction.
The mystery is intensified by the sheer number of people falsely confessing to Harland that they are his secret client. Was the motive a cattle rustling dispute? A gambling debt? Or could it have something to do with the recent big-money train robbery? And most importantly - who is the puppet master convincing these people to run interference with cock-and-bull stories crafted to keep Harland away from the truth?
Folks, this is a great Western. One of the best I’ve read in ages. It’s also one of the best noir mysteries I’ve read. It made me want to explore the rest of DeRosso’s body of work. Sadly, the author died in 1960 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Since the novel’s Lion Books release in 1953, “.44” has been reprinted several times and is currently available as an eBook. This is great news since the book is a masterpiece and should be required reading for noir and Western fans. Highest recommendation.
Buy a copy of this book HERE