Book review: The Last Notch by Arnold Hano
Reprinted for the first time under his own name, American author Arnold Hano's innovative, provocative Wild West tale of greed, self-loathing and redemption sees a legendary outlaw attempting the perilous, complicated path toward amnesty.
Hano, now aged 95, is a distinguished sportswriter who has authored nine sports books and contributed many sports-related articles to periodicals like Sport magazine and Sports Illustrated. Author of the critically-acclaimed A Day in the Bleachers, published in 1955, he was also the founding editor of Lion Books, a notable paperback publisher in the 1950s, and served as managing editor for Bantam Books.
Aside from his non-fiction books and work as a book editor and journalist, he was a highly productive writer of fiction in the 1950s and 1960s. Written under various pseudonyms, his standalone novels range from crime fiction and Westerns to fictional biographies and film novelizations.
The Last Notch, originally published in 1958, is one of five diverse novels written under the name Matthew Gant. Given his remarkable versatility and nonconformist approach, it is perhaps unsurprising that his literary style varies from book to book, or that The Last Notch is an unconventional Western.
The story centres on a complex, sympathetically drawn cowboy named Ben Slattery. Born into slavery, rejected by his white father and burdened with guilt over the death of his black mother, he carries painful memories of his boyhood in the cotton fields and is riddled with self-hatred.
Having long since been granted his freedom, he has gone on to become a widely feared professional killer known by those in his trade as ‘Wolf.’ Aged 37, with 29 kills to his name – although though he claims to have stopped counting years ago – Slattery has suddenly grown sick of killing and tired of being a tool ‘moved by others for other men’s ends’ and now wants to live normally and decently.
The new Governor of the Territory has promised a full pardon to all bandits willing to lay down their gun and side with him in his fight to stamp out lawlessness. The ageing Slattery, conscious of the growing power and reach of the law, is keen to join the four or five hundred others who have already been pardoned. He just has one last contract to fulfil before he can retire... a kill with a huge $5,000 payoff, more than enough to ‘buy himself a little piece of land, raise crops or run some cows.’
Unfortunately, the job is fraught with danger and carries adverse political and personal implications. In addition, his jealous rival, an infamous teenage assassin known as The Kid, with buck teeth and a ‘terrible high giggle,’ believes that those who side with the Governor must therefore side against him and anybody else outside the law, and has vowed to gun-duel with Slattery if he accepts the Governor’s amnesty offer.
Heading into a town which is a breeding ground for crime and full of outlaws and ex-outlaws, and hunted by a vicious, fast-shooting murderer whose only real fulfilment comes from gun-to-gun combat, Slattery’s hopes for a long, honest, satisfying life seem doomed to failure.
Stylish, perceptive, and character-driven, The Last Notch is a constantly interesting, notable Western which deliberately lurches away from the expected trail and defies conventions.
David Laurence Wilson, in his detailed introduction to this Stark House reprint, describes Hano as a ‘challenging, subversive’ author looking for ‘untouched subjects and unusual formats.’ And The Last Notch, with its focus on economic, cultural, and political issues, and starring a killer with a social conscience, is certainly a refreshingly different sort of Western, highlighting Hano’s uniqueness and masterly talents for storytelling.
A surprising, top-notch tale…
(Stark House Press, paperback, £7.99)