The Wrong Quarry is the latest of Hard Case Crime's revival of Max Allan Collins' novels featuring the hired killer Quarry, who now has become a hitman with a difference: Quarry tracks other hitmen, identifies their targets, and then gets himself hired to kill the killers, before they kill the victim. And for a extra fee, he can eliminate the person who hired the hit in the first place.
This time he is stalking a killer named Ronald Mateski into a small town in Iowa, where a popular high school beauty queen has disappeared, and where someone appears to have hired Mateski to take out the police's top suspect. So Quarry, posing as a journalist, starts investigating the disappearance, and decides the killer's target is someone worth saving. For a price.
When the Quarry books first appeared in the 1970s, they were Collins' second attempt at criminal protagonists with single names, following the Nolan novels, about a professional thief clearly influenced by Donald Westlake (Richard Stark) and his Parker. What made Quarry different was the fact that he wasn't a thief who would kill when he had to, but a killer, who killed for a living. This is a step further along the road anti-heroes walk, and Collins upped the ante by doing the books in the first person, the classic private eye narration he would later use to such good effect with his Nate Heller novels.
The problem, obviously, is that the reader inevitably is drawn into identifying with the protagonist, seeing the world from his point of view, and the viewpoint of a psychopathic killer is a difficult one with which to engender empathy. So Quarry, in some ways is a kinder, gentler sort of killer—his current twist on the hitman business indicates that—and occasionally his tastes and world view seem very mundane for such a hard man. With Nate Heller, we know we aren't dealing with someone detached from the reality of the mundane world. But we don't imagine Parker browsing the wire racks of stores for western paperbacks, much less sharing the authors' names with us, as Quarry does. But Collins does a slick job of never letting us forget what Quarry really is all about—and the conflict between what he is and what we might want him to be is the key to the tension which animates the novel.
The second strong point is the period setting, in the mid 1970s, and the style, which is drawn from the Gold Medal and other paperback originals whose heyday was ending in those times. Collins is excellent in establishing not just the milieux, but also the world-view of the era—so when Quarry gets seduced by a sweet high-schooler it comes in a sort of garish overkill of wanton lust that surprises and even shocks a modern reader, as if that reader were back in the more modest world of those lurid paperbacks. There are a number of twists to the tale, and the eventual resolution actually reveals a character who's very much a modern-style villain, a serial killer who in effect hides in plain sight, behind the camouflage of the era's attitudes toward sex. It may be set in the 70s, but Collins is writing with the real flavour of pure 50s and 60s pulp, and The Wrong Quarry works brilliantly on those terms.
The Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins
Titan Books/Hard Case Crime, £7.99, ISBN 9781781162668
NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)