The Wrong Quarry
Max Allan Collins, one of America’s greatest mystery writers, is on a creative roll. In recent years, his excellent historical detective novels featuring Nathan Heller have dealt with the death of Marilyn Monroe and the assassination of JFK. Now 2014 kicks off with THE WRONG QUARRY, the latest in his series involving an ex-Army sniper in Vietnam who returns home to become a professional killer. This series is so well written that if you read just one story about Quarry, you will want to search out every other installment. That’s how entertaining they are.
Quarry has had an interesting publishing history. Collins wrote four of these novels in 1976 and 1977, and a fifth in 1987. Quarry then disappeared until Hard Case Crime came into existence a decade ago. They have published five new Quarry books since 2006. The publishing house is rightfully famous for bringing back into print many great lost classic novels from writers such as James M. Cain, Michael Crichton, Donald E. Westlake and Lawrence Block. But this series is a perfect example of the new and vital pulp work that has emerged from this small publisher.
There have been hit men around since the earliest pulps. But Collins has done something interesting here. He has turned the stereotype of the depraved killer who does it for money or sick kicks right on its head. He has created a killer you will actually enjoy spending time with. Quarry is an existential modern man. We never learn his real name; “Quarry” is the name given him by his recruiter and boss, the Broker. He explains: “My looks were inoffensively pleasant enough… I could be sitting next to you on the plane as you read this, or in the deck chair by the hotel pool, and we’d smile and nod and exchange words about the weather, and I’d be gone from your memory by tomorrow. Sooner.”
"The Quarry novels are great pulp fun with plenty of twists to keep you turning the pages. Despite the inevitable violence connected to his work, Quarry always manages to find willing sexual partners, and some of the sex scenes hereare almost psychedelic in their originality."
At one point, somebody whines to Quarry about being alone and asks him if he knows what it is like not having a serious relationship. He thinks, “Actually I did and I didn’t mind. Not as long there were waitresses in Geneva, Wisconsin, who liked to spend the occasional evening on Paradise Lake.”
In keeping with the time in which he was created, the 1970s, Quarry is the Vietnam War come home. He is the soldier who arrived back to find his wife in bed with another man, killed him and then landed not in prison but in a profitable new profession. And then Collins turns that on its head.
After a fatal falling out with the Broker, Quarry creates his own new business. He appropriated the Broker’s list of 50 assassins and started following them, usually two-man teams, to their targets. He then approached the target offering to hit the hitters for a large fee. And for a larger fee, he would remove the person who wanted them dead.
And this is what brings him to the small Missouri town of Stockwell. The book is set in the 1980s. Quarry is driving a 1980 Ford Pinto --- hey, don’t laugh, I drove a 1978. People are reading John Jakes’s NORTH AND SOUTH and complaining about Tab soda. Tab was Coke’s most popular diet soda before Diet Coke was introduced in 1982. People drank it to lose weight, but it seems in memory that they complained a lot about the taste or lack thereof.
Quarry soon discovers that the target marked for death is a gay dance teacher. The head of the most powerful family in town, Clarence Stockwell, is convinced that the teacher has something to do with the disappearance of his talented but super wild granddaughter. But this is noir, where nothing is what it seems. Quarry’s work is not exactly science; the more he learns, the more he comes to wonder if he has the entire thing wrong.
The Quarry novels are great pulp fun with plenty of twists to keep you turning the pages. Despite the inevitable violence connected to his work, Quarry always manages to find willing sexual partners, and some of the sex scenes hereare almost psychedelic in their originality. (And it will change forever your appreciation of the classic hard rock band Deep Purple and their hit song, “Smoke on the Water,” assuming you had any appreciation in the first place.) Quarry is the ultimate anti-hero.
This is the longest running and top-selling series in Hard Case Crime’s brief history. Let us hope that means Collins keeps writing new Quarry adventures long into the future. And while we wait, you should go out and read the books you missed in the series, or go back and read them again. You will not be disappointed.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 8, 2014