Many of the novels of the Hard Case Crime series take place in the time between 1940 and 1970 (all of those rediscovered titles) or in the last decade (the debut printings of Charles Ardai’s books, among others). These have been, relatively speaking, eras of economic growth and prosperity. The criminals, disaffected private investigators, etc. that make up the protagonists of so many HCC novels represent dropouts from mainstream society, people left out of the simple act of benefiting from the ordinary economy.
Max Allan Collins’ 1976 novel Quarry features a professional killer, and thus another example of the fringe-dwellers mentioned above, but also the stagnant times of the 1970s. There’s nothing really new about a professional criminal, or the shoestring connections holding together organized crime, but Quarry has a feel of its own. Maybe this is simply due to its location in the Midwest, a far more familiar place to me than the typical New York or Los Angeles locales, where the little details of an economy in standstill are more tangible:
Which was why when I’d driven around town this afternoon, I kept my eyes open for a place like Bunny’s. A place where I could sit and drink and get quietly drunk and maybe pick up some broad who didn’t have hair sprayed into a style that died in 1961 everywhere else but Iowa.
Quarry, the titular pseudonym of the hitman and narrator, is stalking his prey in the fictional river town of Port City, Iowa. He had his longtime partner Boyd have been assigned by their shadowy go-between Broker to kill an innocuous-looking man who lives downtown. The target lives alone, but is related to a wealthy couple with a very public profile. Scoping out their target, Quarry and Boyd plot their killing with detached professionalism (although Boyd is showing signs of carelessness).
Quarry is a story of job-associated anxiety. Before the main Port City plot begins, we see another of Quarry’s professional killings inside a bathroom at the Quad Cities airport. In addition to shooting his target, he is tasked with recovering a large amount of heroin. This “pain-in-the-ass job” arouses his suspicions to the point that he returns only half of the drugs to Broker.
Broker is the connection between Quarry and the criminal association that bankrolls his assassinations. Perhaps Broker is the criminal association — Quarry doesn’t really know, only that Broker is more dangerous than he purports to be, and is a man for whom nothing is really an accident or coincidence. Although he does not feature in much of the action, Broker casts a shadow over the story as a remote, calculating antagonist. In fact, the book Quarry was titled Broker for a time, with the cover featuring a gray-haired gentleman in possession of an oversized right hand. Perhaps inspiration came from The Hunter.
Quarry’s suspicions are not eased in the meeting with Broker, who has brought a rather ungainly novice named Carl along. Broker confronts Quarry about the missing half of the heroin, lets the matter drop, and briefs him on the next job. Broker has already committed Boyd to the ask as the lookout:
[Broker] “Phone rings where he’s doing surveillance. He’ll be there most of the time.”
[Quarry] “A phone at a lookout? Sounds like an unusual situation.”
“It is. It’s a dream situation for you, Quarry, like a vacation with pay.”
“Work isn’t my idea of a vacation, and neither is Port City.”
“Busman’s holiday, then.” Broker got up and into his suitcoat, soothing it with his palms and saying, “Sorry we had so much trouble with that other matter.”
“All is forgiven, Broker.”
“I’m sorry if you found your task today offensive. I’ll keep that in mind and avoid giving you any such activities in the future.”
“Enjoy your stay in Port City.”
“I don’t enjoy my work, Broker. I just do it.”
Quarry is told in the first-person narrative, so that we will only know Broker to the extent that Quarry knows. Broker’s status as an untrustworthy boss puts us in Quarry’s corner; it also helps that Quarry is rational but also self-critical. He is surprised but not stunned when the double-cross comes, and arrives with violence. Neither are we, as Collins is careful not to make his book all about subverting genre conventions. Finding his partner Boyd dead and the money missing, Quarry decides to break his pattern of detachment and find out who paid Broker for the killing, and why.
Driven but not convinced of his abilities, Quarry experiences times where he struggles with self-doubt when a shallower character would simply doggedly act the sleuth:
I sat in the Ford, slouched down, trying to think. For two cents I would’ve gone to sleep. For three cents would’ve never waked up [sic]. I kept trying to think, trying. I couldn’t. Maybe Broker was right, maybe I was being an ass, maybe I should give it up. My initial feeling of indignant rage had dissipated by this time. I felt crumpled, like an empty paper cup, used, emptied, discarded.
In another nod to genre conventions, Quarry gets into bed rather easily with a couple of women that he comes across. The first is a bikini-clad lounger who picks up strangers at an airport hotel pool. After having sex with salesmen or passers-through, which she assumes Quarry is, her brute of a husband comes by to rob them in their rooms. She’s not important to the main plot, just to help illustrate how Quarry belongs somewhere above the ordinary small-time hoodlums and scam artists in the violent hierarchy of the underground.
The second woman of the story is more significant. Peg is the co-owner of the only appealing bar in town — Bunny’s — and a former “playmate” who married a rich Chicago gangster. Now a widow and attached to the same wealthy family as the assassination victim, she provides both information and cover for Quarry. Once they start sleeping together, of course. Peg is also in a relatively small part of the book, but Collins gives her some personality and history. Quarry quickly develops an attachment to Peg, either out of genuine attraction or because she represents a way out of the underground and into a legitimate existence. It’s a clear departure from that crass “pick up some broad” phrase used when Quarry first finds Bunny’s. This makes both her and Quarry interesting, potentially series-defining characters.
Quarry is a decent start to a series about an antihero; the titular character has some depth and pathos that fleshes out the first-person narrative. I thought that the facts behind the double-cross came along too easily for him at the end, but then again the conspirators were not exactly seasoned in covering their plots. The significance of Quarry’s predilection for being alone in swimming pools may have escaped me, other than that he is an introvert and craves solitude beyond what would be prudent as a career criminal. His inability to keep lasting relationships means he has to keep starting over with people, which is a practical character choice because he is not the easiest person for readers to connect with.
The tension between Quarry and Broker motivates a compelling beginning and a dramatic ending to a story that would have been in danger of wandering afield. Collins’ style is more direct than other writers, preferring clarity over decoration. Quarry does not pretend to be anything other than it is, and it is both original and highly readable. 7/10.
NOTE: Edited to add a little more about Peg and why the Quarry’s relationship with her is an interesting character development.