Dan Harland is a 27 year-old hired killer. He doesn't like the job, but it's all he's good for. One day, he tracks down the man he has been paid to kill, but when the man draws his gun first and then refuses to fire Dan shoots him down. Puzzled as to why the man wouldn't take his shot, Dan tends to his victim but although the man lingers awhile before dying, he takes his secret to the grave.
So, Dan sets out on a trail to discover why he was sent to kill the man, who paid him and how the man came to be marked for death. It is a trail that leads him back to the man's hometown where he meets a cast of characters who each seem to be concealing part of the mystery, and whose secrets may put Dan in Boot Hill.
I love Western movies, but have never had the same affection for the novel form. However, this is a curious and effective hybrid, being a Western novel that adopts many of the tropes of film noir. The self-loathing anti-hero here is not trapped within the concrete canyons of an unfeeling metropolis, but instead finds himself assailed on all sides beneath some very real canyons in world of space and desolation. As the narrative unfolds and ensnares Dan, he finds himself at the mercy of criminal kingpins, an explanation that always remains marginally beyond his grasp and which, in part, even eludes the reader in the case of the McGuffin that propels the action.
And yes, there's even a femme fatale.
There's also some surprisingly brutal violence, sharp psychological insights (for example, Dan remarks 'It isn't the killings that you detest that are bad. It's the ones that you enjoy'), enough lost souls to populate several film noirs, and a pitilessly bleak ending that wouldn't seem out of place in the type of paperback originals Jim Thompson penned for Lion around the time of this novel's publication.
Overall, and in spite of some occasionally pedestrian writing, this is a genuine find, a Western novel for those who love the form as well as one for those like me who generally take their crime, noir and hardboiled straight up.