SIX GUNS AND PSYCHO-NOIR: A REVIEW OF ARNOLD HANO'S THE LAST NOTCH
WARNING: The third paragraph gives away something the author may have intended as a surprise in the second chapter
The Last Notch is not your normal fifties paperback western. Even today it reads like an experimental take on the genre, owing as much to David Goodis as Zane Grey. The author Arnold Hano, who used the pen name Matthew Gant for this and few a few other westerns, also served as an editor for Lion Books, working closely with Richard Matheson and Jim Thompson.
The story is practically a stripped down version of your typical oater. Ben Slatterly, a gunfighter with twenty-nine notches on his belt rides into a territory plagued by a cattle war. He takes the governors offer of amnesty as part of a plan to get close enough to his target for a job that will pay him enough to retire, his last notch. Aligning with the governor puts him at odds with a young brash, psychotic, killer with an itchy trigger finger known as The Kid. (It's pretty easy to figure out who he's based on.) If you are a western reader who looks for authentic detail, this book is not for you. Hano brings the plot down to its base elements. A Walter Hill movie feels baroque in comparison.
It is what drives this plot that sets it apart. Hano uses it to to examine both socio-political and psychological ideas and how both are intertwined. For one thing we learn Slatterly is black and only until the second chapter. It's as if Hano broke down every thing to its basic elements in the beginning as a means for us to question them through the rest of the story. The gunman feels his work is slavery, serving as a tool for the ugly jobs of evil men. He carries a knowing rage and a sordid history before he was freed that fuels his vengeance. When it is revealed it is not only shocking in the story itself but for when you consider the period it was written in. One sees a sensibility and style Hano shared with Jim Thompson and there is the theme of a man killer burdened by his reputation that Matheson would use decades later in his debut western Journal Of The Gun Years.
A cinematic style influences the story, but not in the usual way we use the term. It focuses on detail like finely edited close ups. We read into gestures of a men sizing each other up and the death of one can can be described by a hand falling away from a holstered pistol. This isn't the technicolor vistas of John Ford. Hano appears to have borrowed from the black and white noirish westerns of the decade he wrote in, like Anthony Mann's Winchester '73 and Robert Wise's Blood On The Moon. I would have loved to have seen what Sam Fuller would have done with this material.
I wonder what some of the first readers that bought this off the drug store spinner rack with the square jawed white gunfighter on the cover thought after they cracked it open in 1958. Even now it remains edgy and unique. If the term "existential western" wasn't already out there it would be invented for this. For a reader looking for something different in the genre, The Last Notch is a must. Thanks to Stark House who just reprinted it on their Black Gat Series. It can be ordered here