Here's a news flash I missed: "Secret sauce" isn't a secret anymore. Which should come as no surprise, I suppose, in the age of WikiLeaks. The only shocker is that Julian Assange didn't out the sauce himself from his sinister WikiLair in an abandoned Depends factory. I can see him rubbing his cadaverous hands together as he cackles, "So...the corporate clown thinks his sauce will stay a secret? Not if the Leaker has his way! Henchmen...to the internet!"
But no -- Assange can focus on revealing Colonel Sanders' "11 herbs and spices" or uncovering the "ancient Chinese secret" behind those super-clean shirts he gets from the Ecuadorian embassy laundry. Because the Daily Mail blew the lid off the secret sauce mystery way back in 2012. According to McDonald's Executive Chef Dan Coudreaut, the sauce splatted on Big Macs is made from "mayonnaise, sweet pickle relish and yellow mustard...whisked together with vinegar, garlic powder, onion power and paprika." (I hope the Daily Mail is now investigating an even bigger mystery: What does a McDonald's "executive chef" do with himself all day? Other than revealing proprietary information to dodgy English tabloids.)
So it turns out secret sauce isn't simply thousand island dressing, as so many of us had assumed. Nope. Look at those ingredients. It's thousand island dressing with some mustard. Which makes mustard the secret sauce in secret sauce. The more you know!
I was thinking about secret sauce this week because I just finished reading a novel that had a heapin' helpin' of it. Which would make a book a real pain to read, you might think. Thousand island dressing and mustard might bring a little zip to wafer-thin meat patties and sponge-like slices of bread, but try reading through the stuff. You'd need a fresh Wet-Nap, like, every two paragraphs. Only I'm talking about metaphorical sauce. A secret ingredient. A flavor that makes you pause and say, "Hmm...I wasn't expecting that to be in there."
I found that flavor in a surprising place: an obscure, long out-of-print (until recently) 1958 Western paperback called The Last Notch. I have a soft spot for Westerns, but I'll be completely honest with you, one reader to another. A lot of them are sauceless. Generic, bland. Big Macs without the sauce or even the pickles and onions. Meat and bread. Boring.
A lot, I said. Not all! It doesn't get any saucier than True Grit or Little Big Man or Lonesome Dove. And no one's gonna accuse Elmore Leonard and Joe Lansdale of being generic, bland and boring. The right writer can take any kind of story and make it unique and interesting. It's just that most writers of obscure 1958 Western paperbacks didn't really try.
But Arnold Hano did. The name on the cover of The Last Notch is Matthew Gant, but thanks to Scott Montgomery's Western/crime fiction website The Hard Word, where I first learned about the book, I know that Hano was the real author. And if you know who Hano is -- and I didn't until recently -- the fact that The Last Notch is anything but generic comes as no surprise.
In the '50s, '60s and '70s, Hano was a prolific writer of books and articles about sports and athletes. His 1955 book about a pivotal World Series game, A Day in the Bleachers, is still in print today. But the secret sauce in The Last Notch isn't that the good guys and bad guys settle their differences with a rousing game of baseball. Consider this: Hano was also an editor for the pulp paperback imprint Lion Books, where he worked closely with noir legends David Goodis and Jim Thompson.
A deep, dark streak of noir does run through The Last Notch. It's got a classic noir set-up, too: A hired killer who wants to escape his violent life takes on one last contract...but the intended target turns out to be the only person who could save him.
But you know what? We still haven't gotten to the novel's secret sauce. And I'm not going to tell you what it is, either. Part of the power of the book for me came from my surprise when it went somewhere Westerns almost never go. (But, hey -- I realize not everyone's as spoiler-phobic as me. If you want to know more about the plot of the book, check out Scott's review.)
I don't know why Hano decided to write a Western that was so dark and daring. I assume it wasn't something he did lightly: As an editor, he'd have known all too well that he was making his book less conventional, less commercial. But if he hadn't pulled the trigger (so to speak), I wouldn't have picked the book up six decades later, and I wouldn't know who Hano is today.
What makes The Last Notch special isn't just the noir and isn't just the twist. It's Hano himself -- a unique individual hidden in the pages of a paperback that looks like a thousand others.
Look inside, writers. The secret sauce is you.