The Pequod Review:
Max Allan Collins's Quarry is a fast-paced and gripping pulp thriller about a Vietnam veteran (the one-named Quarry) who returns from the war and gets hired as a hit man. While the book's plot centers on a particular assignment — the targeted assassination of an oddly nebbish man in Port City, Iowa — Collins's strength is in his dialogue and character development, especially of the amoral Quarry himself:
I suppose at this point I should be filling you in on my background and telling you how I got into such a specialized line of work. Don't count on it. There are two things you won't get from me and that's details about my past and my real name. The closest you'll get to a name is Quarry, which is an alias suggested by the Broker and I always kind of liked it, as aliases go. Or I did until I asked Broker why he suggested an offbeat name like that one and he chuckled and said, "Know what a quarry is, don't you? It's rock and it's hollowed out." Broker isn't known for his sense of humor.
I will sketch in some of my background, in case you feel the need to try to understand me. I'm a veteran of the Vietnam fuckup, which was where I learned about the meaninglessness of life and death, though the point wasn't really driven home until I arrived back in the states and found my wife shacked up with a guy named Williams who had a bungalow in La Mirada and a job in a garage.
I was going to shoot the son of a bitch, but waited till I cooled down enough to think rationally. Then I went to his house where he was in his driveway on his back working under his car and kicked the jack out...once in a movie I heard death referred to as "the big crushout," and for that poor bastard the phrase couldn't have been more apropos. I didn't shoot my wife, or drop a car on her either. I just divorced her. Or rather she divorced me.
Of course no court in the world would have touched me, a cuckolded serviceman fresh home from the fight. But no one wanted me for an overnight house guest either. I couldn't find work, even though I was a fully qualified mechanic..and it wasn't like there weren't any openings. The garage where Williams worked could've used a man, that was for sure.
The only relative I had who would even look me in the face was my old man, who came out to L.A. to see me after I had my little marital problem. He told me not to come home, said I'd made my stepmother nervous even before I started murdering people and God only knew how I'd affect her now. I never did ask the old man which murders he was talking about, the dozen or so in Vietnam or the one in California.
Since I couldn't go home to Ohio with my father, I just hung around L.A. for a month or so, spending my money as fast as I could, going to movies during the days and bars at night. That got old fast. California got old fast. It was where I was stationed before going overseas and was where I fell into the star-crossed romance that ended in marriage, among other things, with that brown-haired bitch whose face is fuzzy in my memory now.
I don't know how the Broker got a line on me. Maybe it's like pro football teams recruiting players; maybe Broker sends scouts around to bars to look for guys with faces full of no morality. Or maybe Broker and his people pay attention to certain of us who get back from service and have problems. I know mine was in the papers and got enough publicity to keep me from getting jobs when! applied. You know I never did figure out how everybody could be so goddamn back-patting sympathetic and still not be willing to risk giving me a job.
Everybody but Broker. He had a job for me. I don't remember the conversation. I know it was elliptical. You don't come right out and ask somebody if he'd like to kill people for money. Even Uncle Sugar is more subtle than that.
Anyway, Broker showed up one day at what could best be described as my fleabag one-room apartment in L.A. and somehow or other got across to me what he was talking about.. that I could make top dollar continuing to do what I had just finished doing for peanuts and, in one case, for free. Killing people, that is.
She was getting dangerously close to being a person in my life. Women hasn’t been persons in my life for a long time. Women were pretty receptacles for pent-up biological and psychological waste material. An extension of self-abuse, nothing more.
The book also covers professional relationships quite well, as Quarry has to deal with the carelessness of his partner Boyd:
The yellow window went black.
"Just turned out the lights, didn't he?"
I cocked my head and looked at Boyd. He was glancing at his wristwatch and he had a wiggly little grin going under his curly brown mustache. He was showing off: from where he was, stretched out on the davenport against the wall behind me, sipping his latest Budweiser, he couldn't see the window that had just gone dark. But he wanted me to know what a swell job he was doing, how perfect he knew the mark's pattern. How just checking the time he could tell me what the mark was doing. I could almost feel on my own face the heat from his semi-drunken glow.
"Yeah," I said, turning back around, keeping my back to Boyd, keeping up my vigil.
"You might as well not bother watching anymore."
"The lights won't be on again. He won't be going out again either. He's got a clock built in him, this gink does. And a boring damn clock it is."
I looked at Boyd. I sat and leaned my shoulders against the wall and folded my arms and said, slowly, "Maybe you been at this too long."
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?"
"It means you're getting sloppy." I glanced back out the window, making a pretense of keeping up my watch on the apartment across the way, just to let Boyd know I didn't trust his judgment anymore.
"Aw bullshit, Quarry. Bullshit. You're the one's been in it too long. You're getting old and paranoid."
"I'm getting old? Christ, you got fifteen fucking years on me, Boyd."
"Age is a state of mind."
Collins's Quarry character was based in large part on Donald Westlake's Parker, but there are some essential differences. As Collins put it in the afterword:
I thought Parker and Nolan were to some degree cop-outs. They were “good” bad-guy thieves — oh, sure, hardbitten as hell, but they stole mainly money and only killed other bad guys. In the '60s, banks and the Establishment in general were worthy targets of fantasy revenge. Also, “Richard Stark” and I both wrote our crook books in third person. Safe. Detached.
I wanted to take it up a notch — my “hero” would be a hired killer. The books would be in first person. In the opening chapter, Quarry would do something terrible, giving readers an early chance to bail; late in the book he would again do something terrible, to confront readers with just the kind of person they’d been easily identifying with.
And Quarry himself would be somebody like me, just a normal person in his early twenties — not a child of poverty or cursed by a criminal background, but a war-damaged Vietnam veteran.
Quarry is an action thriller but its measured development of character and setting allows it to establish real depth. Highly recommended.