NOTE: This review is of the third book in the Quarry series, which has been reprinted by Hard Case Crime. It is about a free-living professional hit-man of the 1970s, told in the first person. Although the Quarry titles look like they can be read out of order, I discuss the plots of the first two volumes, Quarry and Quarry’s List, in this article.
The Quarry series began with Quarry, written in the early 1970s, introducing a professional killer operating in the Quad Cities area between the states of Illinois and Iowa. Not only was the locale different than the typical cities (New York and Los Angeles) that dominate crime fiction, but Collins had his titular anti-hero tell his story in the first-person. Trained by his war experiences for survival and cold-blooded violence, Quarry still attempted to form a lasting bond with one of the female characters he met–thus showing some resistance to a fully sociopathic lifestyle. Quarry was entertaining, but sacrificed its most interesting secondary character, a man called Broker who supplied Quarry with both his assignments and his pay.
The sequel, Quarry’s List, saw Quarry manage a takeover of Broker’s business, by possession of a list of other assassins in the organization. The pursuit of this information led Quarry to Broker’s young widow, who (in my interpretation, anyway) may have entered into a sexual relationship with him in a bid to preserve her life. It was evident that others see Quarry as more of a menace and an outsider than Quarry imagines himself.
If Quarry’s List accomplished the tasks of setting up plots for further episodes–Quarry intends to use the list to foil planned killings, for a profit–and deepened the main character through his aborted relationships, the main task of the third book in the series, Quarry’s Deal (1976), is to settle in and feature Quarry stalking his rivals. Telling the story of Quarry tracking a sexy female assassin from South Florida to Des Moines, Iowa, QD is purely entertainment.
The title and silly cover art for the Berkeley edition highlights Quarry’s time at the card tables of a basement casino, which is actually a minor feature of QD. More intriguing is his methodical exposure of a plot to erase the casino’s owner, and subsequent quest to find both the killers (all members of Broker’s organization were trained to work in two-person teams) and the payoff money. And to keep things from getting quiet, QD includes a lot of raunchy sex along the way.
As the McGinnis cover of the HCC edition suggests, QD starts with our anti-hero in South Florida, among many wealthy, bikini-clad women. He’s having regular sex with one–in the resort he’s at, the women are the condo owners and all men are staying as guests or gigolos–while carefully observing another.
How much longer was I going to have to watch her? Another week? A month? Longer? I never have liked stakeout work [sic], and this swinging singles lifestyle, with its fringe “benefit” of constant sex, seemed likely to kill me before I had a chance to kill anybody myself.
Maybe tonight would be different. After all, the afternoon had been different. The tall, busty woman I’d been watching these past few days had acted a little strange this afternoon. All week she’d been giddy, just another bubble-headed fun-seeker playing footsy and everything-elsey with her blond boyfriend. But this afternoon she’d gotten moody. Her face had taken on an almost grim look. Her efforts at having fun seem just that: efforts.
This is in line with the stakeout passages of the previous novels: Quarry spends a lot of time blended into the scene, piecing together the life and emotions of his target through meticulous observation. He needs no feelings of moral supremacy or disgust for his target to generate a desire to kill; he simply collects his data and executes his plan.
There is some occasional contempt for fringe characters, however. When the mystery woman disappears from the resort, Quarry breaks into her apartment to look for clues as to where she’d be heading. The blond boyfriend comes in and catches him rooting around. Quarry’s the smaller man of the two, but he draws out the confrontation to his advantage:
[the boyfriend, after much macho-talk] “She won’t be there till tomorrow, at least. She’s driving and it’s a long way where she’s headed.”
[Quarry] “Where’s that?”
“You’re her new boyfriend and you don’t know? Hey, that’s all. That’s all I can take. Just haul your ass off that couch and get outa here. Okay?”
I was admiring a metallic abstract sculpture on the glass coffee table between us. It was egg-shaped, the sculpture, with an indentation on either side, and about the size of the baseball, a little taller maybe. When I hit him with it, he went down without a sound.
Quarry belongs to a higher tier on the hierarchy of violent characters than this unfortunate boyfriend, and wastes little time reflecting about what he did to remove the man from his way. It seems he has a bit of contempt for beta-males trying to pass themselves off as alpha-males, metaphorically punching above their weight class. This is shown again with his interaction with a pair of amateur robbers in an entertaining subplot.
He tracks the woman, whom he recognizes as “Ivy” from the Broker’s list, to the small town of East Lake, Iowa.* There, she’s known as “Lucille” and working as a bartender in a popular establishment called the Red Barn Club. The Red Barn Club has a casino in the basement, and Quarry spends time there playing blackjack and poker and ordering bad drinks. He knows Lucille is part of an assassination team, but in a development that owes more to genre convention than plausibility, quickly gets into a relationship with her–becoming the next boyfriend after all.
Lucille’s apartment is across the street from the building where her target lives. The man is Frank Tree, the wealthy owner of the Red Barn Club and someone with considerable connections to the politicians. Quarry’s ploy to make his money involves:
- tracing the other names on Broker’s list to find planned killings with a large cash payout (done), and
- interfering with the killing, drawing protection money from the intended target and–with luck–finding the payout as well.
To close the deal, Quarry introduces himself to Tree and quickly convinces him of the danger he’s in. After some skepticism, he makes Quarry his paid protector. In an apparent effort to make himself trust Quarry more, he takes him on a day-trip to Iowa City, to meet his institutionalized son. Frank Tree Junior fell into a crowd of drug pushers while in school, and was caught with a large amount of narcotics. Tree recently formed an anti-drug citizen’s organization, making East Lake a very difficult place to score anything illicit. Tree, and Quarry, are convinced that whoever had been making money pushing drugs in the area is behind the plot to kill him. All Quarry needs to do is find the triggerman on Lucille’s team.
QD effectively contrasts amateurs versus professionals in the underworld. As hinted at by his scenes playing cards at the Red Barn Club, he knows how much money he is prepared to lose before walking away, and which dealer can be taken advantage of. He finds one weak dealer in particular that is easy to beat, and of a surly demeanor besides. The plot behind the attempt on Tree’s life is also, at its core, an amateur attempt to defeat his citizen group by someone who pushes his luck as recklessly as his drug supply. The Iowa talent pool for nefarious criminals is simply not that deep.
But Lucille is not one of these part-timers: she is, in effect, a female version of Quarry. After congratulating himself in finding a way to keep track of her and Tree at the same time, Quarry eventually starts to wonder whether its Lucille who is keeping him close. It’s not as if Quarry is too pig-headed to respect women; there’s a small chapter where he meets the manager of a theatre company to prove otherwise. But sex is a big blind spot of his; he reveals his true occupation once a book to the woman he happens to be infatuated with. And in eastern Iowa, one would think this behavior will eventually catch up to him.
QD is a solid entry into the series. Its initial marketing as The Dealer overplays the thematic connection between gameplay and the consequences of a risky lifestyle. This is not The Man With the Golden Arm, nor does it try to be. It is an entertaining read with some interesting secondary characters–the very capable Lucille, whom we can imagine traversing the plot on her own, and Frank Tree, whom we appreciate because of Quarry’s role as a paid ally. Its a twisty but not convoluted crime story. 7/10.
* This is an allusion to the author Donald Westlake, but more specifically his 1967 Parker novel The Black Ice Score. In that story, Parker tracks his kidnapped girlfriend to a place called East Lake, Connecticut for a final shootout with the abductors. Quarry’s Deal features gender roles almost diametrically opposite to The Black Ice Score, but the two books share the themes of amateur criminals and greedy individuals fatally pushing their luck. There is also a sense of comic bewilderment throughout Quarry’s Deal that is reminiscent of Westlake.