Sunday, May 9, 2021

"Manhunter" by Arnold Hano (1957)

In Arnold Hano’s westerns, the frontier is deceitful above all things, truth is rarely simple, and resolutions never easy. Where other books end—the capture of the killer and the confession—Manhunter begins.

“Ross was no longer vitally interested in Gill. He had his father’s killer, his confessed killer. But Gill could clear up who was lying, and why.

“On the heels of that thought came a terrible doubt, streaking across his brain like a yellow comet. It had all happened so long ago. Maybe it was he—Ben Ross—who was lying.”

Originally released in 1957 under the pseudonym “Matthew Gant” and recently released by Stark House Press (paired with Slade), Manhunter is emblematic of Hano’s strikingly original approach to the western genre. Revenge and closure don't drive his protagonist forward, it’s something darker and all-consuming. These sorts of qualities separate Arnold Hano’s westerns from many of his peers, and what gives them the distinction of being labeled retroactively as “western noir.” 

11 years ago, Ben Ross witnessed his father, a Texas sheriff, gunned down at his desk. Three men rode of out town that night, and one of them was responsible for the shooting. Now that he’s been deputized to bring back the killer dead or alive, Ross heads to Colorado to find a man named Gill who knows the identity of the murderer. Arriving in town, Ross discovers that Gill is missing, and his former employers—the Stanton Brothers—are enmeshed in a range war over fences against Caesar, who wants to keep the range free and open. From a vantage point in a cave overlooking the range, Gill orchestrates both ends against the middle in hopes of taking everything for himself.

One of the hallmarks of Hano’s western fiction is that nobody’s motivation is pure at heart. “Men had their special provinces,” reflects Laura, the saloon singer and fortune teller, “painful provinces, where men shot each other or built fences so other men could tear them down.” There’s no moral high ground in Hano’s frontier—no one is wholly right, and most everyone is at least partly wrong, if not wholly corrupt. 

Memory haunts Manhunter. “Outside the sun sank through the west, and shadows blotted out great areas of the town and of the western hills. Ben Ross remembered many things he had forgotten. That was funny, he thought. A man forgets things, but he doesn’t. They’re there, all along.” Characters chase fragments of misremembered events; others run from things they might have done, could have, wanted to; and still others play with the truth, distorting it into fictions to suit their own purposes. Nothing is absolute in Hano’s world, not memory, not morality, and not history. 

Another trait of Hano’s books is the complexity of the stories. He tackles situations that can’t be fixed by a shoot-out or dying man’s confession. It only takes a few chapters of Manhunter before you realize that no one is going to come away clean from this mess.

Concluding with a duel with no gun, and a posse with white flags against an small army of armed riders, Hano eschews conventional climaxes and dismantles the mythology of heroic bloodshed. Manhunter is an antithetical western, a powerful, brooding, and radical approach to the genre. Many thanks to Stark House Press for continuing to champion Arnold Hano one of the great mid-century novelists and progenitors of the western-noir subgenre.

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