Quarry’s List, by Max Allan Collins

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.

ql_mcginnis

Cover by Robert McGinnis for Hard Case Crime. hardcasecrime.com

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.

Solitude

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.

Pragmatism

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.

Solipsism

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.

 

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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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20 Responses to Quarry’s List, by Max Allan Collins

  1. fredfitch says:

    I’ve read this one. I’d rank it pretty high in the series, most of which I still haven’t read. As I mentioned, a lot of the novels are prequels, because Collins opted to end Quarry’s connection with Broker in the first book. He’s never a professional hitman in the same way again afterwards, though he goes on killing people. It’s more work to create a set-up for him to go on doing what the reader wants him to do (or why would you be reading?), so Collins kept going back before the break-up with Broker (an interesting character in his own right).

    The big difference between Quarry and Parker is that these are first-person narratives. Quarry tells us all about himself, where he came from, something Parker would never do–it often seems that even Richard Stark, the omniscient narrator, is struggling to understand his protagonist. No such problem here. Quarry will explain every last thing he does to us, everything that led him into this life. It’s a very different approach. There’s no sense of narrative distance here (if Quarry kills someone, we’re killing him too), and we don’t get into anybody else’s head.

    But yeah, they do occupy something like the same spectrum in the mystery genre, oriented more towards staying alive and solvent than solving puzzles, though they both do that too. And of course a new girl every time, which was a thing with Parker too, for a while.

    I’d compare them more–even in their packaging–to the Executioner series by Don Pendleton, and the Remo Williams books of Murphy & Sapir (which I believe were written in the first person–hard to find any reviews, even though there’s an insanely large number of them). “Men’s Adventure” is how this type of book is generally described.

    Both the Executioner and Destroyer series feature men on a mission that involves killing a lot of bad guys. This time the assassin is a bad guy himself, doesn’t really want to be, but somehow he can’t get out of the life entirely. It’s all a lot less altruistic and cuddly. Also raunchy, which is something I appreciate about Collins.

    Parker was about deepening the heist subgenre, reexamining it, and I would guess Quarry was about doing the same for books about professional killers. Collins has only produced 14 of them, and I’m guessing they’re all a lot better-written than the Mack Bolan and Remo Williams books, but I’d have to read some of those to find out. Bolan first appeared in ’69, Williams in ’71, and Quarry in ’76, so that all tracks.

    Since one of the inspirations for Parker was Raven, the hare-lipped assassin of Graham Greene’s “A Gun For Sale”, who is betrayed by then turns on his employers, it’s interesting that somebody influenced by the Parker novels would create a series about a hitman who does the same. But to write a series of books, you need a market. I would say the market in this case was created more by Pendleton, Murphy, and Sapir.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      The review site schlock-value (https://schlock-value.com/) covers a lot of these “Men’s Adventure” titles, and as you would suspect, most of them appear horrendous. The Quarry series is much closer to the Parker books than it is to those. There is the occasional hidden gem, however.

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      • fredfitch says:

        Closer in terms of writing quality (though there’s still a pretty wide gap), but let’s be real here–Westlake may have started writing the Parkers at a brutal pace of two or three books a year (while writing many other books, and short stories and articles). But he never cranked them out at anything like this level, and Collins has only given us 14 Quarry novels since ’76.

        I’m sure there are people who love the Perry Rhodan books, and perhaps even can tell one from the other. But there are basic human limits to how many times you can write about the same characters without just writing the same book, over and over and over again. And that’s what some readers want–not change, but predictability. Creative stasis.

        Stylistically, there’s not much similarity between Quarry and Parker. Professionally speaking, they have very different jobs, and Quarry has a boss, at least some of the time. Collins, I’d suggest, was aiming much more at the ‘Men’s Adventure’ crowd than the by-then defunct market for Gold Medal crime paperbacks. And the quality of the writing, while much greater than you’d get for Mack Bolan or Remo Williams, is perhaps midway between those and a Richard Stark opus.

        It’s a sideline, of course. He’s writing lots of other things besides Quarry. Actually, most of the Quarry novels were published in the 21st century, when a revival of interest in the character happened (and an abortive cable series). The first four came very close together, which is reminiscent of the early Parkers, but there wasn’t a lot of follow-through. Westlake wrote consistently about Parker for about ten years before taking that long break.

        It’s a very different thing. Writing about somebody who steals for a living and then kills people–mainly criminals like himself–to keep what he stole, or avenge some injury. Writing about somebody who will murder some stranger for a fee. Collins had to make a lot more compromises there.

        Lawrence Block, I’m convinced, was reacting to Quarry when he created Keller–Block’s idea was to make the series humorous. Keller has a running existentialist crisis about what he does. And he always has a broker. But he’s a lot more likely to kill people who don’t deserve it than Quarry. Because a real hitman doesn’t give two shits about who deserves what, as long as the check clears. Well, probably better not use checks.

        Liked by 1 person

      • pete says:

        The only “Men’s Adventure” series I ever read was Barry Malzberg’s Lone Wolf series, which he wrote at an absurd pace under the pseudonym Mike Barry. Despite the hasty production, Malzberg managed to include some of his usual meta-fictional content — making some of the same points as your “Perry Rhodan … creative stasis” paragraph. I can give the Mike Barry series a lukewarm recommendation for Malzberg fans and completists. Nobody else writes like him, so why not?

        There was also the Hard Case Crime volume Gun Work, which I disliked, and made me realize that I wasn’t going to acquire, read and review every HCC title. 95% of them, sure, just not the ones that look nakedly exploitative. It’s not my habit to read books I don’t expect to like reading.

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      • fredfitch says:

        I recently read a novel I fully expected to hate, simply because somebody came to my blog to plug it, and I heard from somebody else that he’d opened it with a direct and uncredited grab from one of my favorite Parker novels. That wasn’t the only thing he grabbed, either. The book was essentially all grab. Any original idea or engaging character that got in there by accident would have died of loneliness.

        It was so much worse than I expected, and yet it was fascinating, in its way–to see somebody paint by the numbers like that and still get published (it seemed to be self-published, which is getting a lot easier these days).

        I might argue that the purpose of reading bad fiction now and again is to make you appreciate how much work went into the good stuff. Even what most critics dismiss as junk often has remarkable artfulness and inspiration to it, that only become apparent when you compare it to somebody using the same exact tropes, without understanding how or why they work. (Conversely, what some critics praise as brilliant and original can often be hackneyed and trite, once you look past the intellectual gloss and labored style, to the shriveled kernel of a story at its core).

        I’ve known Malzberg for decades, and yet somehow I don’t remember what books of his I’ve read (I have one of his sleaze-inspired efforts waiting to be read). He falls into the ‘Kilgore Trout’ category (even though Theodore Sturgeon was the original inspiration for Vonnegut’s pulp anti-hero). Somebody who never really produces a masterpiece, or even a coherent oeuvre; doesn’t fully understand his own talent, and yet the talent is there, seething below the surface, story after story. You know you’ve come across a unique voice, and you wonder what the hell he’s trying to say with it. Maybe something like “Send me my damn check, you fly-by-night shyster!”

        Like Robert Christgau once wrote of Roy Buchanan “Yes, he is a great guitarist. No, he has no idea what to do about it.” But it’s fun watching them try to figure it out.

        Liked by 1 person

      • pete says:

        Well, I’ll have to disagree with your assessment of Mr. Malzberg …. On a Planet Alien, Beyond Apollo, Guernica Night and several of his short fiction pieces have convinced me that he was capable of creating great fiction. If anything, his science fiction may have produced too coherent of an oeuvre: he returned to a handful of obsessive themes (loss of reality, the Kennedy assassination, astronauts, self-deception, toxic atheism) many times. His style and humor were so dark that he never seems to have been celebrated like a Le Guin, but I’ve felt that during the 1970s he was as good as any writer in SF (I wasn’t as impressed with his crime fiction, co-written with Bill Pronzini).

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      • fredfitch says:

        I’ll get back to him, and I may well come around to your POV. I don’t call anyone great lightly, but you know by now I don’t dismiss pulp writers for being pulp writers. Most of my favorite writers fall into that category these days, one way or another.

        But if you want obsessive dark humor, you really have to get to Charles Willeford, man. And his crime fiction simply can’t be beat.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. fredfitch says:

    Looking back at my last over-long response, I would amend it to this–

    The Quarry novels are much better written than the Mack Bolan and Remo Williams novels.

    The Parker novels are as well-written as anything I’ve ever read in my life. More efficient and wind-resistant than just about anything, this side of a Hemingway short story. (I find Hemingway’s novels baroque compared to Richard Stark’s.)

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  3. fredfitch says:

    Pursuant to nothing, I belatedly realized the Cinemax series based on these books actually happened, ran for eight eps, and got canceled (and it’s hard to get canceled after one season on pay cable).

    Based on what I can see of it online (without paying, since Cinemax ain’t worth the bread), they took the bare bones premise of a veteran turning hitman, and not much else. They don’t even call him Quarry! (Mac Conway–yeesh, sounds like a country-western singer–talks like one too. Character doesn’t feel like Collins’ Quarry at all.)

    I guess the title refers to his prey, but that’s pretty lame. Possible Collins asked them not to use the name, like Stark wouldn’t let them use Parker’s name while he was alive, but I seriously doubt that’s what happened.

    I’m glad Collins got paid, and I hope he got paid well, but it does not seem they could have blown it much worse than they did, and probably would have been better if they’d just left Quarry alone. Now there’s basically zero chance of ever seeing a decent adaptation.

    Raylan Givens they got right, probably because Raylan was just a supporting character in his first two novels, and they were free to remake him pretty much as they wanted. But when I think “Hey, I wish they’d try a Parker cable series,” the realist in me thinks “No, you really don’t.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      I also watched the first two episodes. I probably liked it a little more than you, since it was fun to see The Wire’s Jamie Hector as “Conway’s” war buddy. Maybe as a Cinemax production (Cinemax is an HBO property), it didn’t get the same number of chances as some other high-production shows. But yeah, maybe they should have stuck closer to the source material.

      The adaptation was not a mess on the scale of Amazon’s recent Philip K Dick series — that’s another discussion for future posts, maybe — but swapping in Memphis for Iowa seems like an unforced error.

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      • fredfitch says:

        The main thing that interested me when I first heard about it was that Mary Elizabeth Winstead was in the pilot (she’s very interesting), but seems they never aired that pilot. Which would tend to indicate some creative problems, right from the start.

        I always love seeing actors from The Wire pop up elsewhere, but on good shows. And far as I know, Cinemax hasn’t had one yet. Even so, most of their shows go more than one season.

        To me, it looked like the twisted sense of humor in the original books got lost in the wash, and they just couldn’t commit to the sheer amoral alienation of Collins’ protagonist (this one’s guilty over his role in the My Lai massacre? My my.)

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  4. macphilms says:

    I never read the men’s adventure stuff. I was reacting to Richard Stark, Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane and Horace McCoy. The first book was written in 1972 but it took a while for somebody to buy it, at which time I wrote the three sequels. My first series, Nolan, was first published in 1972 (the year I graduated from the University of Iowa and the Writer’s Workshop). Nolan was a direct imitation of Parker, done with Westlake’s blessing (he was a mentor). Quarry was, in a way, a son rebelling against his father, as I found Parker (and Nolan) to be protecting readers via third person; I wanted readers to be confronted with who and what they were identifying with, in first-person. I should add that I was very influenced in those days by films (still am), and POINT BLANK actually introduced me to Richard Stark/Parker. Nolan was later published by Pinnacle (early ’80s) right after they lost the Executioner series. Pendleton attacked me for using a character that rhymed with Bolan (!) and threatened Pinnacle with a lawsuit. Though the Nolan novels were successful in that marketplace, Pinnacle dropped it to avoid Pendleton’s wrath.

    As for the QUARRY TV show, I liked it. I liked the money and I liked the attention it brought to the books. They were doing a sort of origin story and did a good job with it. The major problem was the lead (a good actor) not embracing or frankly understand Quarry’s dark humor (both the character and the series) and that removed a key element from the mix. Funny, though — I would be watching an episode and thinking, “That doesn’t have anything to do with me,” and then the very next thing would be pulled directly from something I wrote. An odd experience.

    Liked by 2 people

    • pete says:

      I noticed the TV Series dropping the books’ humor, also. Towards the end of the second episode, Conway has come home after murdering the Williams character — not my shooting him, but by kicking out the jack. He’s in the pool again, and his wife comes back to find the “missing” record playing on the turntable, next to a handgun. It just seemed a lot more menacing of an action than the Quarry of the novels. After the cathartic act of killing Williams, I wouldn’t have thought that Quarry/Conway needed to play with his wife’s fear like that. But then again, I’ve only read the first three books in the series.

      Putting humor into a murder-for-hire crime story has to be challenging. Obviously, there’s Fargo and the comic bits in Mulholland Drive–so it can be done, but I wonder if that’s the most difficult thing to write into such a production.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        Eh. Tarantino didn’t seem to have much trouble with it.

        You know the story about the old Shakespearean actor, on his death bed, and he’s asked how he feels, and he says “Oh, dying is easy–COMEDY is hard.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • pete says:

        Tarantino did ok as a writer and director in this respect, but not as an actor. Also, I seem to remember the 1990’s being chock full of Tarantino knockoffs that failed to reproduce the dark humor of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs.

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      • fredfitch says:

        Does anyone other than Tarantino consider him to be an actor? I’m not sure even he does. He just likes putting himself on film. Now Zoe Bell–there’s an actor.

        Hitman humor is quite common, of course. I’d say funny stories about assassins may be more prevalent than serious ones. Humor is a distancing mechanism, that allows you to get away with more. Block’s Keller stories are more humorous than the Quarry books, though it’s a quieter kind of humor, with more pain in it. The Liquidator, by John Gardner, is basically a satire of the Bond type of agent, with a license to kill–but did the Bond movies ever take it seriously? Even the Fleming novels are pretty tongue in cheek.

        And of course, The Assassination Bureau, with Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg, is pure farce, even though bodies are dropping right and left.

        I’d say the most challenging part is not combining humorous writing with murder. It’s that humorous writing itself is so inherently challenging. Most writers can’t pull it off well at all. And it wouldn’t take long at all to count all the writers who can handle both suspense and comedy well. At the same time, or separately.

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    • fredfitch says:

      Most of the time, when I watch a movie or TV show made from the work of a writer I admire, I find myself thinking it has nothing to do with that writer, even though I can see the framework underneath the canvas. The canvas is usually not painted as well as I’d like, but as long as the check cleared…..

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  5. fredfitch says:

    For the record, I never once said Max Allan Collins actually read the men’s adventure stuff–I never did, though I saw them all the time in bookstores back in the 70’s, would leaf through them, then put them back on the rack.

    A publishing niche is a publishing niche, and a series about a guy who kills people for a living is pretty specific. Graham Greene got there decades earlier, but he only wrote one book about Raven. That I know for a fact was a direct influence on The Hunter. As I know for a fact Westlake would not have admitted this influence under slow torture. (He just hinted.)

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    • pete says:

      Oh, I know — I just think because of the Bolan/Nolan coincidence and the marketing by Pinnacle, Collins has had to address that question more than once. Nolan isn’t even the hit-man series, Quarry is, and neither series has the kind of right-wing politics “Men’s Adventure” hackwork is known for.

      I mean, read whatever you want — I don’t judge — and it would make sense to have an idea of what sells, anyway. I have no idea how many science papers I pored over, only to find out that they were incomplete or misleading. Part of the job.

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

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