Arnold Hano is an esteemed sportswriter, winning numerous accolades including 1963's Sportswriter of the Year. His 1955 non-fiction account of the 1954 World Series, “A Day in the Bleachers”, placed him in the annals of baseball history. Along with freelance work, including The Saturday Evening Post and The New York Times, Hano wrote many paperback originals under the pseudonyms of Gil Dodge, Matthew Gant, Ad Gordon and Mike Heller. Using his managing editor experience with Bantam, Hano became editor-in-chief of Lion Books from 1949-1954, developing crime-noir legends like Jim Thompson and David Goodis.
While working at Lion Books, Hano wrote a classic western tale entitled “The Last Notch”. This 1958 novel was released under the name Matthew Gant to avoid the optics of publishing himself in his authoritative role as editor-in-chief. The book was reprinted in 2017 by Stark House Press under imprint Black Gat Books. It features an introduction by David Laurence Wilson, including insights from Hano on his career and literary body of work. As of the time of this review, Hano is still writing at the age of 97.
“The Last Notch” is a western. The genre tropes are clearly evident – cattle rustlers, six-guns and fast-draws...of both iron and whiskey. However, it is written to exclude one of the centerpieces of the frontier story. There's no clear hero. No white hats to be seen. It is devoid of any strict boundaries between right and wrong, and lacks any social conventions for the characters. It's as if Hano's goal was the non-traditional definition of a hero. It's not until the book's closing pages that the moral courage is unveiled, finally allowing readers the satisfaction of some semblance of a heroic figure...as little as that may be. But I think that is where “The Last Notch” excels as an abstract western tale that defies the mandatory genre attributes.
The book's central character is an old gun-slinger named Slattery, an bi-racial killer-for-hire who has accepted his final contract - $5,000 to kill a “target to be named later”. Faces and names mean very little to men like Slattery, so he accepts the job and does what killers do - hangs out at the bar with similar men. One of them is a cold-blooded youth named The Kid, essentially Slattery's heir apparent. The arrogant young man wants to knock off Slattery and assume his position as the King of the Killers. Slattery isn't buying it and refuses to face The Kid in a gun-duel.
The territory has a newly-elected governor who is issuing amnesty to men like Slattery. In retribution for his sins, the tired gun-hand wants to kill one more time, accept “forgiveness” from the elected official and turn in his guns for a pardon. In a way, Slattery feels this act is a cleansing of the sins, a way to simply ride off into the sunset and die. The book's exciting dilemma is revealed when Slattery learns his $5,000 target is the governor himself.
Hano employs a back-story inspired by the mega-success of 1957's “Mandingo” by Kyle Onstott to paint Slattery's past as a plantation slave and his subsequent birth out of wedlock following the coupling of a white master and a black slave. The author uses the opportunity to provide adversity for Slattery, essentially shaping him into a grim-faced killer, a sweeping hand of death that just does the job and coldly forgets about the last one. Mixed into the narrative is a riveting side-story of amnesty for cattle rustlers, which cleverly crosses into Slattery's goals of killing the governor.
There are basic westerns, and then there are special westerns like “The Last Notch”. Genre authors and hopefuls would do very well to improve their plotting by simply reading the book's 14th chapter, if nothing else. While the action heats up in the finale, it's a slower, more methodical approach bordering on psychological suspense that sets this apart from rudimentary western storytelling. Kudos to Stark House Press and Black Gat for bringing this fantastic novel back into circulation.
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