QUARRY’S EX is a terrific addition to both the series created in 1971 by Max Allan Collins and the Hard Case Crime collection. It was originally planned to be released in 2010 by Hard Case Crime when Dorchester, their partner and distributor, went out of the paperback business. Now it is has been released as one of the first four books issued by the reborn Hard Case Crime.
"Max Allan Collins has proven again and again over the years how great a writer he is. Quarry is one of his greatest creations. Read QUARRY’S EX and you will see why."
It illustrates perfectly why crime and mystery fans love this publisher. Collins created ex-Vietnam vet turned hired killer Quarry while still a student at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He wrote five Quarry novels in the 1970s. Then the series remained quiet until Hard Case Crime came along, and Collins did three new Quarry books for them. QUARRY’S EX is the fourth.
Collins has said that he was trying to pay homage to his mentor Donald E. Westlake’s noir antihero series starring the ruthless heist man with only one name, Parker. But Quarry, unlike Parker, is an ordinary, generally pleasant fellow who just happens to be capable of incredible acts of violence. Make no mistake, QUARRY’S EX is pure hard-boiled noir. By page 31 of the book, Quarry has driven a car over the head of an ex-associate who was passed out drunk at the time. And we’re just getting started.
Collins writes, “You’re probably wondering how a nice guy like me could end up killing people for money. A lot of nice guys, particularly young ones, start out their adult lives by killing people for money. It’s called being a soldier.”
Quarry comes home a day early from his job as a sniper in Vietnam and finds his wife in bed with another guy, who is soon killed. His wife, it turns out, is a petty grifter who, unknown to Quarry, has married two other soldiers --- “naïve young schmucks” --- before him and collected on their insurance when they didn’t come home. Quarry doesn’t end up on trial but does find work opportunities when he is approached by a mysterious “broker” who urges him to turn his killing skills into a career as a hitman.
Collins then gives a wonderful switch to the hitman story. Quarry eventually has a falling-out with the broker, who soon also dies violently and inherits the brokers list of 50 other killers for hire. So he soon goes around tracking the killers as they seek their prey. He then approaches the prey and offers to hit the hitman for a big fee. Then for another fee, he will hit the person who ordered the hit and eliminate that threat.
Quarry does these jobs maybe once a year. It is on one such hitman extermination expedition that he finds himself in the Nevada desert, where he learns that the intended victim is a movie director making a biker film on location. Quarry soon finds out that the director is married to none other than his ex-wife. Coincidence? Perhaps.
QUARRY’S EX is set in 1980. The Empire Strikes Back is in movie theaters, Blondie songs are playing in bars, and people are walking around wearing “Reagan for President” buttons. And there are these places called video stores popping up where you can rent cassette copies of movies. A stunning new world for those of us alive at the time, but only a preview of the technological revolution about to hit. And it is fascinating to watch Quarry as he maneuvers around and tries to find out who is behind the contract on the director.
Collins writes, “But remember --- anybody designated for a hit is somebody who almost certainly has done something worth getting killed over. Such an individual tends not to be a sterling model citizen… My hunch had been that these people would welcome help, especially when the other option was to take a bullet or get run over or fall down icy stairs…”
Just as there are not really hookers with a heart of gold, so too Quarry is not a hitman with a heart. He is a businessman with a specialty line in the dawning of the Age of Reagan, and he is good at what he does. In the desert, besides the hired killer, he will have to figure out how involved his ex is with the hit and deal with his unresolved feelings for her. Then there is the sexpot blonde starlet who just happens to be the boyfriend of the mobster who is financing the movie.
What results is an extremely satisfying noir read. Quarry says close to the end, “All roads were lonely when you got run over on them.” John Garfield or Tom Neal couldn’t have said it better in a 1940s film noir voiceover.
Max Allan Collins has proven again and again over the years how great a writer he is. Quarry is one of his greatest creations. Read QUARRY’S EX and you will see why. Then read the other three Hard Case Crime Quarry novels from the last decade before seeking out the books written 40 years ago.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on September 29, 2011