But I did have a system. Not an alarm system; nothing more than my own built-in alarm, which comes from those rice-paddy warfare years I suffered through, where you learned to sleep light unless you didn’t care about waking up. The best warning system depends not on electronics, but on devious thinking. You have to be smarter than the guy trying to break in. That comes from Vietnam, too, I guess: the tendency to think of psychological and even guerilla [sic] warfare rather than more conventional, unimaginative means.
The second of Max Allan Collins’ Quarry series, published recently by Hard Case Crime as Quarry’s List but originally (1976) given a plot-revealing title, continues some months after the first one left off. I write about the setup and premise of books in my reviews, so the ending of Quarry is going to be “spoiled” in this article. I previously wrote about Quarry in a spoiler-free manner, however.
The top quote encapsulates much of what the Quarry series has been about so far: it is a first-person perspective of a hit-man who tends to survive alone on his instincts, having done so successfully in the Vietnam War. We do not know exactly what his war experience was; he evidently went through several harrowing experiences, maintains a kind of guerrilla combat-readiness and feels alienated from normal society. The second entry in what was by then a series intended to span several volumes, Quarry’s List develops the character’s solitude and pragmatism (and, maybe, solipsism).
At the end of Quarry, the titular character confronted, and then indirectly killed, his employer, a criminal middleman named Broker. Broker was a relatively wealthy, connected individual with a young wife from a wealthy family in Eastern Iowa. It’s not the wife or family that concerns Quarry. Rather, it’s the void left in Broker’s business, to be filled by the organized criminals in Chicago (who have not been visible, only present by reputation) or by other hitmen on the payroll. In either case, Quarry would be considered a dangerous loose end that someone would attempt to resolve, sooner or later.
Living off his cash reserves in an A-frame cottage in southeastern Wisconsin, Quarry has spent months waiting for his assassins to find him. While he made his daily trips to the local YMCA swimming pool, someone was breaking into the cottage and searching it. QL thus opens with Quarry waking up to the sound of a professional break-in and reaching under the pillow for his gun.
Needless to say, he turns the situation around in his favor pretty efficiently, since the would-be assassins are actually a team of one professional and one novice, who happened to make enough noise getting into the wrong bedroom. The professional’s mistake was depending on the novice, of course. Quarry learns from the pro that a man named Ash sent them to Lake Geneva.
Ash is a former partner of Quarry’s, paired together by Broker for the killing of a mob-connected real estate agent in Milwaukee. Quarry was the backup man in the team (a role explained in detail in the first book, Quarry), and ended up saving Ash’s life when the target’s bodyguards showed up at an inopportune time. Being less of a loner than Quarry, Ash is relatively easy to track down in the Quad Cities area.
Quarry’s solitary existence, enough to foil Ash in the initial chapters, started after he returned from service in Vietnam:
Vietnam taught me a lot of things, but coming home taught me more. The beginning of my education was finding my wife in bed with a guy named Williams. The only reason I didn’t shoot Williams on the spot was I didn’t have a gun on me, and he was too big to slug it out with, so I ended up backing out of there, feeling embarrassed, somehow, for having interrupted.
. . .
I didn’t kill my wife. Had she been under the car at the time, I would have dropped it on her just as fast as Williams. But she wasn’t, and any feeling I had for her died with her boyfriend. She divorced me, of course. I couldn’t have cared less.
The killing of Williams did not land Quarry in prison, but gave him a notoriety that kept away job offers. He was able to leave the murder story behind in Ohio (where “home” was at the time), but as a Vietnam veteran potential employers regarded him as damaged or possibly drug-addicted. This disaffection is told without much bitterness, but revealing that Quarry’s solitary lifestyle is not entirely by choice. After all, at the end of Quarry he did try to maintain a connection with Peg, only to be rebuffed.
While following Ash around Davenport (the largest of the Quad Cities between Illinois and Iowa), Quarry finds him operating the stakeout phase of a potential for-hire killing, as if Ash and his backup man were still employed by Broker. Investigating the building across the street of the target’s living quarters, Quarry encounters the backup man on the stairwell:
I hadn’t seen the guy up close before. As I’d expected, he didn’t look quite so young, up close. He was on the short side, but wide in the shoulders and probably a strong son of a bitch. The long straight hair and full face beard gave him the desired hippie effect, but the cold little eyes said Vietnam.
Later, Quarry finds another two-man team searching his hotel room:
[The man searching his dresser] He was medium-size. He looked like a college kid, but he wasn’t the backup man, and wasn’t a college kid, either. Like me, like the backup man, like everybody else wandering around town pretending to be young, he wasn’t. He was wearing a University of Iowa sweatshirt and brown jeans and used hairspray to keep his longish hair in place, and he just generally had the look of an insurance man playing dress-up. Or, rather, dress-down. . . . He had those same cold Vietnam eyes as the backup man, and looking at him, I said to myself, “This fucker’s a pro,” and to this day I don’t know why he went for it.
Collins does not obsess over Quarry’s Vietnam experience, but he uses it at key points in QL. This makes the novel more of a Parker-style crime story than keenly constructed detective fiction: we’re required to accept this Quarry’s ability to read the eyes of other characters, for example. Both Quarry and Parker (of Donald Westlake’s Parker series) are fallible characters, but Quarry’s actions have a little more mystique and a little less logic behind them. Of course, I’m only two books into the Quarry series at this point.
Iowa Sweatshirt Man, like the two would-be assassins after Quarry in Lake Geneva, were searching for a list of names known to belong to the departed Broker — hence the title. Ash is convinced the Quarry has the list, since Quarry was known to be present (if not responsible) at Broker’s last moments. Ash figured, quite reasonably, that no one being paid by Broker would want him dead, without a plan in place to take over the business. That plan, conveniently enough, is contained within a list that could be easily tucked inside a dresser drawer or under a rug. The key to foiling Ash and preserving his own life, then, is Quarry’s ability to find Broker’s list first.
The list in QL provides a device for the series to add episodes: Quarry is not a businessman and lacks Broker’s connections, so the list gives him a means to track down other hitmen and increase his own chances of survival. This is, of course, a dog-eat-dog existence that requires emotional isolation — something Quarry seems to be only reluctantly embracing.
To illustrate how Quarry’s emotional world is shrinking around him, QL introduces the love-interest character. Once in Davenport, he meets Carrie, a young blonde widow who happens to like swimming in hotel pools as much as Quarry. It’s not long at all before they’re in bed together, and she doesn’t appear to suspect anything dangerous about him. Quarry, on the other hand, ties Carrie to the goings-on with Ash and the local lawyer bankrolling his operation — he sees Carrie coming from the building being scouted by Ash’s backup man. When Iowa Sweatshirt Man and his partner show up at their hotel, Quarry has to break his cover act in order to get Carrie out of immediate danger.
Besides all of the sex scenes and gun-violence, the second half of QL features an interesting exchange between Quarry and Carrie as he drives her out of the city:
[Quarry] . . . “Is that why you haven’t asked me to take you to the police?”
“Oh, you’re wondering if that’s occurred to me. That I should be thinking, if my life’s really in danger, shouldn’t I run to the police? Why put myself in your hands instead, the hands of a stranger? Well, why not? Who else do I have? I put myself in your hands last night, willingly enough. Why not again.”
There was an uneasiness in her voice, despite her artificially flip attitude, that disturbed me. A resignation, that seemed to say, “If you’re my lover, fine … but if you’re my murderer, well that’s fine, too … it just doesn’t matter that much to me, one way or the other, anymore.”
This resignation is not what Quarry wants, but it’s what he gets. Its significance, sandwiched between the standard (but well-written) genre material, is clear in that Quarry hasn’t completely accepted the lone gunman’s life as his own. It’s a welcome layer of depth to a character that could be slowly evolving toward solipsism. 6/10.