Quarry, by Max Allan Collins

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-7

TV Tie-in Art for Hard Case Crime. hardcasecrime.com

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

Berkeley Medallion edition. maxallancollins.com

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.”

“Good.”

“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.

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About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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5 Responses to Quarry, by Max Allan Collins

  1. fredfitch says:

    I’ve read a few of these (I started with the misleadingly titled prequel, The First Quarry), have enjoyed them, but was never gripped with the irresistible urge to read them all, as I was with Parker.

    I’m not sure if when you refer to influence from The Hunter, you mean the book, the cover, or both. Collins was influenced by Stark, made no bones about it (the Nolan books are perhaps the ultimate homage), but Parker never had an employer or was one, and he never delegated the wet work.

    This is a story about a guy who begins as an employee, after leaving the military, and ends up his own man by degrees. Mainly because he doesn’t have any other choice. If you can’t trust anybody in your world, you have to trust yourself.

    Problem is, the story comes from the jobs he does. Collins doesn’t want him killing anybody unless it’s for money or self-defense. So Collins had to keep going back to before the events of this book. It’s a similar quandary to the one that confronted Lawrence Block after he dried up his alcoholic PI, Matthew Scudder.

    Block probably read a fair few of the Quarry books, and ended up creating his own take on the set-up, with the Keller stories and novels. Keller also has a ‘broker’, but we don’t really meet him. He just sticks with his job, thinks about leaving it, settling down somewhere, with someone, never does. Because that would be the end of the stories.

    One thing I’ve long appreciated about Collins is his gift for writing sex scenes (pity he missed the sleaze era), and he’s got the perfect protagonist here for a series of tawdry romps that never go anywhere.

    Not great books, but there is an integrity to them one must respect. And as you say, readable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      I was referring to the cover art for The Hunter, where Harry Bennett painted Parker with those oversized hands. I was joking because these 1970s photograph covers are, let’s face it, best thought of as jokes in themselves.

      That’s an interesting point you made about Block and his later Scudder books. I’ve had A Long Line of Dead Men sitting around the house for months now, and I used to read them as soon as I got my hands on them. When a genre book gets bumped in order to make room for Thackeray, maybe that indicates something…

      I’ll have to make my way through a handful of Quarry books to compare them to the Parker series. The Parker books do have this compulsive quality to them, not only to read but to dissect.

      Like

      • fredfitch says:

        It’s impossible to imagine Stark ever penning a Parker prequel, let alone one written in the first person. The very concept of a prequel is alien to Parker, who lives in the present. Who just keeps swimming forward, like a shark. Yes, I know I’ve called him a wolf. It’s a rich tapestry of predation.

        Westlake never did prequels under any other name either. He could have done a Mitch Tobin prequel–instead, having more or less fixed Tobin, he just stopped writing about him.

        A Dortmunder prequel might have been fun–like a story about the first time he met Andy Kelp. But again, just not something Westlake ever did. You don’t go back. Only forward.

        His one attempt at a period novel (with Brian Garfield) is, shall we say, not one of the more stellar efforts from either man (but Garfield at least knew how to write westerns).

        Collins loves writing period pieces (he’s been quite successful at it), so for him prequels make more sense.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Quarry’s List, by Max Allan Collins | gaping blackbird

  3. Pingback: Quarry’s Deal, by Max Allan Collins | gaping blackbird

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