“The Last Notch” is Arnold Hano’s twisted take on the traditional Western. The antagonist is known only as The Kid — we never learn his given name. It is established early on that he is pure evil, a hired killer who takes pleasure in striking fear and killing, sometimes slowly. He spends much of his time in a small town, Fort Heck, which is best known as the place where you can hire killers.
Where the book takes a turn from the traditional is in having its protagonist, a former slave named Ben Slattery, also be a hired killer, willing to kill any man for a fee, no reason or justification required.
Hano’s story is well told and the book is well-written, even though you know it’s going to come down to The Kid vs. Slattery in the end. The challenge lies in trying to find a reason to like Slattery, or to root for him. It’s not until the last 10 pages that Hano starts to tie together the various story lines, giving you a glimmer of hope for Slattery. Slattery leads a tortured life for reasons outlined early on and explored in detail late. But he does a great job and the payoff is a bit surprising, certainly sad and well worth the investment in reading the book.