Friday, July 28, 2017

Forgotten Books: THE LAST NOTCH by Arnold Hano -aka- Matthew Gant (1958)

Until I got my hands on this new (coming next month) edition of The Last Notch, I had never heard of Arnold Hano. I can say that without too much embarrassment, because most of the writing over his long career has been about baseball. I like baseball just fine (Go Twins) but aside from fondly-remembered juveniles by William Campbell Gault, I’ve read only a handful of books on the subject. 

Mr. Hano, it turns out, is also the author—under four different pen names (also new to me) of four other westerns, one historical (about Sam Houston), a thriller and three other more novels I’m not sure how to classify. Two of these, plus a baseball novel, were collected by Stark House in 2012 as 3 Steps to Hell. Some of those books are pictured here. Bill Crider has probably read them all (because he’s read everything). Me, I just want to read more.

The Last Notch is unlike any western I’ve read before. On the surface, you might think that’s because the hero blackish, but no, that’s not it. There’s a richness to the prose, almost a density, though dense is not the right word, either. Maybe it just looks dense, because there are so many long paragraphs. It's really more a matter of style.

The story itself takes place in a sort of alternate reality version of the New Mexico Terrirtory. You've heard of the Lincoln County War? In this book, even the name of the county is changed to protect the innocent. The action comes in the aftermath of the "Jackson" County War, as the governor tries to restore peace by offering blanket amnesty to all involved (and, apparently, uninvolved.) That amnesty extends to killers and miscreants of every stripe. A And the territorial governor making the offers is not ex-General Lew Wallace, who was then writing Ben Hur. He’s a stand-in, also an ex-U.S. General, named Steward Victor Fallon. Fallon is an idealist with a relatively pure heart, but he’s assisted by a roundly-hated, openly crooked swine of a man named Abner Chisholm, who seems to be an evil echo of famous rancher (as played by John Wayne) John Chisum. 

Then we get a fascinating (the way a snake is fascinating) and despicable version of Billy the Kid. The Kid, I think, is the only historical figure appearing in the book. He's a depraved scumbag right from the start, and never lets up. As seen through the eyes of Ben Slattery, The Kid has buck-teeth (and later “rat’s teeth”), and sounds like the William Bonney of the famous photo. But as seen by a nubile young Mexican girl, he’s a handsome young god. Though The Kid calls her and other Mexicans “greasers” to their face, they adore him, believing he’s fighting to help them reclaim their stolen land. And he, of course, is laughing up his sleeve. He demonstrates his character by carving his name, “KID,” in a guy’s back, and amuses himself by recalling the time he stuck a knife in his brother’s throat.

While Fallon, Chisum and The Kid are pretty much one-dimensional, Ben Slattery is a fully developed character, and it’s he alone who takes hold of the story and lifts it above a run-of-the-mill western. 

Slattery’s mother, we learn, was a mulatto slave and his father a white plantation owner. Ben Slattery is light enough to pass, but—at least in his own mind—his skin is darker than those around him. He begins the story as a fairly well-adjusted professional killer, convinced his ill-treatment by his father and other white folks justifies his murderous career. But as the inner self he has constructed begins to unravel, he realizes that excuse doesn’t hold water, and examines himself in a new and unpleasant light. He can be granted amnesty for his crimes, but never for his sins, and starts looking for some measure of redemption. 

Bottom line, this is a damn fine read, and a book (unlike most westerns) I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. As a bonus, the new Black Gat edition from Stark House includes a fine 22-page intro by David Laurence Wilson, who is personally acquainted with the author. The book won’t be published until August 25, but (surprise!) Amazon will gladly accept your pre-order dollars now. And if you're curious about Hano, this three-fer is still available:

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Cliffhanger Serials: THE PHANTOM OF THE WEST (1931)

According to IMDb, the basic story is this: A young man's father is murdered and the man convicted of the crime escapes prison, leaving a note intimating that seven local men know the real killer's true identity. The murdered man's son sets out to locate the seven men and find his father's slayer.