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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

STARK HOUSE NOIR

  
STARK HOUSE NOIR

In recent years, Stark House Press has done yeoman’s work bringing excellent, but forgotten noir and hardboiled writers back into the public consciousness. Currently, they are reintroducing readers to the best works of Basil Heatter and Arnold Hano. 

Basil Heatter was a terrific writer of tightly wound noir crime thrillers, often with  nautical background. Heatter’s work is deserving of a higher profile as it is on par with the works of such recognized genre icons as Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, or  Bruno Fischer. 

Heater was not overly prolific, but did write nineteen novels, many of which were set in the Atlantic Ocean. He had served as a P.T. boat skipper in the Southwest Pacific during World War II and felt at home writing about the sea. He even built his own sailboat, The Blue Duck. Basil knew the ocean well, and felt most at home sailing the shifting seas.

Most modern readers have never read Heatter. His first book, The Dim View, was based on his WWII experiences and sold over a million copies. He followed this initial success with sea-oriented stories like The Captain’s Lady and Sailor’s Luck in the 1950s. He wrote a few excellent hardboiled novels for Gold Medal Books in the 1960s, plus a few seafaring non-fiction titles. 

Then he tried his luck with a two-book series featuring expert-yachtsman and adventurer, Tim Devlin, for Pinnacle Books. These were targeted at the Men’s Adventure genre, and I have both of them on by bookshelves, but even though they were solid stories, sales were apparently not high enough to warrant continuing the series. 

Heatter’s last two novels were World War II thrillers, The Einstein Plot and The London Gun, published by Dell Books in paperback in ‘82 and ‘84.  After their publication, Heatter either retired from writing, or suffered the same fate as many midlist fiction authors, and lost his market.

This month, Stark House Press is reprinting in one volume two of Heatter’s best briny flavored novels, Virgin Cay and A Night Out. Both are tight examples of ‘50s noir, hitting all the traditional tropes, but flavored with Heatter’s own flair for language.

In Virgin Cay, stoic Gus Robinson accidentally sinks his ship one dark and stormy night,  washing up half-drowned on a spit of land known as Spanish Cay. There he meets a woman named Clare, who offers him a place to sleep, and not surprisingly for anyone who knows noir, herself. Clare wants Gus to murder someone for her, for which she will pay him enough to buy another boat. Who she wants murdered, and how Gus approaches this tempting request, is at the heart of the story.

A Night Out takes a young man named Johnny—a sailor with a broken heart and a chip on his shoulder—and pits him against a mutinous crew during an illicit run to Cuba. When the ship crashes ashore during a violent storm, Johnny becomes entangled with a rich couple who anchor their yacht nearby. She has the hots for any man who is available, while her husband only wants to drink himself to death. How these two groups survive the murderous night is the crux of the suspense as greed and bad decisions abound.

Heatter is well worth rediscovering, and will most likely lead to want list and to-be-read pile additions.
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Stark House has also reprinted a terrific noir western under its Black Gat imprint. This tale of a self-hating hired gun who wants to redeem himself was originally published in hardcover in 1958. It is one of six westerns Hano wrote under the pseudonyms of Mathew Gant, Gil Dodge and Ad Gordon. While writing these westerns, Hano was also the editor of Lion Books. 

I discovered The Last Notch by Arnold Hano earlier this year when it was recommended to me by master noirster Gary Phillips. In his essay written for the upcoming 52 Weeks 52 Westerns collection, Phillips gives a succinct synopsis of The Last Notch...

On the surface, The Last Notch is the classic Western setup: Regulator Ben “Wolf” Slattery is a gunhawk for hire—a hitman of the Old West. “The Kid”—how the antagonist is referred to in the book—is out to make his reputation, continually seeking to goad Slattery into a gun down. We know from page one when the two are in the same saloon this confrontation is going to come.

Added to the mix, Slattery has taken a $5,000 contract—close to $83,000 in today’s cash—from a man called Wesley L. Frick, president of the Jackson Cattlemen Association. The contract calls for Slattery to assassinate the governor of the territory, retired General Stewart Victor Fallon. The governor is offering amnesty for outlaws like Slattery, a situation that also allows cattle rustlers to get away clean with their hauls. The plot twist is Slattery has reached that time in his life, his late thirties, when he’s bone-deep sick and tired of the death and blood. He wants to hang up his guns and was contemplating taking the governor up on his amnesty offer. But he has to earn one last notch, a big payday, so he can afford to get out. Completing the job will deny him the thing he wants. 

One further complication—Slattery is black, passing for white. More accurately, the white men around him assume the partially black Slattery is white given his ancestry was a “high yeller” mother and a slave master, blonde-haired father. All of this combines to make The Last Notch one hell of an entertaining yarn utilizing familiar tropes, but also going beyond the typical Western of the day.

Arguably, The Last Notch was the first Western novel with a black hero. There are a few other pretenders to the throne—real-life black cowboy Nat Love published his so-called memoir, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as Deadwood Dick, in 1907; In the ‘20s, independent African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux wrote two novels about black pioneers, The Conquest and The Homesteader; and in 1955, Frank Yerby, a writer of color, publish a novel about the gold rush, The Treasure of Pleasant Valley, but with white main characters—but in my estimation, Hano gets the top honors for the first fictional black cowboy hero. Either way, The Last Notch is worth reading for fans of both Westerns and noir.

FOR MORE ABOUT THESE NOVELS FROM STARK HOUSE PRESS CLICK HERE

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