ARNOLD HANO – The Last Notch. Black Gat #12, Stark House Press, paperback, August 2017. First published as by Matthew Gant by Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1958. Reprinted under that byline by Pyramid, #G482, paperback, 1960.

   It was Dan Stumpf who reviewed an earlier western by Arnold Hano on this blog, a book entitled Flint, originally published as by Gil Dodge but reprinted by Stark House as this one is under the author’s real name. In that review Dan also pointed out Hano’s more significant claim to fame, that of being the editor of Lion Books, the near legendary paperback publisher of such hard-boiled/noir authors in the 1950s as Jim Thompson, Richard Matheson and David Goodis.

   The Last Notch isn’t in the same league as the work any of those three, but there are very few whose books come anywhere close. What Notch does have, as you might expect, based only on this small bit of background information, is a strong noirish and fatalistic tone to it, a tale that starts slowly but picks up speed as it goes along.

   In essence The Last Notch is the story of Ben Slattery, perhaps the most notorious gunfighter in the territory, and in all likelihood the best, but in this tale he finds himself in a very strange position indeed. He agrees to do one last killing for hire, one that will pay him $5000, quite a sum of money back then, then hang up his guns and take the governor up on his offer of general amnesty to every gunman who will take him up on it, and many already have.

   If I were to pause for a minute and have think about it, by a nasty twist of fate, who do you think it is he’s been hired to kill? That’s the story in a nutshell, but wait, as they say. There’s more. I won’t go into detail — and in a book of 230 pages of small print, there is a lot of story I’m not able to tell you about in a review of less than 500 words — but as it so happens, Slattery has a nemesis, a shadowy figure who follows him closely throughout the book, a gunslinger known only as The Kid, young but with 19 notches already on the handle of his gun.

   There are plenty of other characters in the story as well, each described in quick but distinctive detail. There are a couple of young women too, both beautiful but one considerably more innocent than the other. It is Slattery’s present and past that make it impossible to think of a life and a future with her, or is it?

   The situation Slattery is in is admittedly an artificial construct, but is is one, I submit, that you can find yourself wrapped up in totally and completely, transported to a time and place that may exist only in the minds of authors with some talent. This is also one of the stories that you cannot predict which way it will go, which is precisely why the former statement is as true as it is.