Friday, August 20, 2010

Quarry Mines for a New Sort of Assassin

Conventions are really rather the point of genre fiction. We come to our favorite sorts of books with expectations that the governess will melt the widower's cold heart, that the stalwart farm boy will overthrow the evil empire, that exploratory vessel with make first contact with an alien race. Crime fiction is no exception, particularly when it comes to the convention of the hit man. Usually killers for hire are damaged but likeable (if protagonists) or icily sociopathic (if villains). Sometimes noir switches things up by making everyone unsympathetic, but stories involving bad men and bullets rarely bounce out of the ruts. Rarely, but not never. Max Allan Collins' Quarry introduces a new sort of assassin -- the pragmatic hit man.

Quarry is the only name you'll get for the efficient, nondescript killer, no matter how much you may ask. The moniker was the Broker's idea; he got a kick out of naming his operative for a hollowed-out rock pit. Apropos for the stolid, businesslike Vietnam veteran, perhaps, but not much appreciated. And that isn't the only thing about the Broker that displeases Quarry. Take his most recent job, an assignment to shake down a drug dealer, acquire his stash of product and humiliate him before putting a slug in his heart. Quarry didn't like that. He doesn't mess with controlled substances or targets' heads. Clients hire him because they want an efficient end to another's existence, that and that alone. The Broker would well to remember that before he finds himself on the wrong side of the gun.

The most interesting part of Quarry is the titular character's rationalization (or lack thereof) of his chosen profession. Having survived that infamous war in southeast Asia only to return home and find his wife cheating on him, Quarry resorts to an inspired bit of calculated bloodshed. Rather than kill his wife's lover outright, he simply waits until the man's working underneath his car and kicks out the jack. No witnesses, no testimony, no murder conviction. Such coolheaded amorality, a desire to simply do what he wants and earn a buck in the process, informs his every decision, making the plot move in interesting -- and sometimes slightly odd -- ways. (The hitman's happening upon a bumbling car thief during a crucial moment feels a bit strained.) Also, such pragmatism makes him more than a bit difficult to sympathize with. That should be nothing surprising to fans of hardboiled, though. Ultimately, Quarry mines for something unique and hits pay dirt.

(Picture: CC 2009 by


Max Allan Collins said...

Thanks for this nice review.

I found it peculiar that you didn't mention this was a novel from 1975. Four novels about Quarry were published in the mid-'70s, another came out mid-'80s, and I've recently done another small batch for Hard Case Crime. There's also a recent film I co-wrote, THE LAST LULLABY starring Tom Sizemore, about the character.

Loren Eaton said...

Thank you for suggesting that I read it! Regarding the chronology, I got a little confused as to the actual publishing date. (I was reading the non-Hard Case reprint.)

Oooh, that Sizemore film looks quite interesting. May have to check it out.