The Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins is a hard-boiled thriller about an assassin who hunts down other assassins (available January 7, 2014).
I love a good, formulaic mystery. Doesn’t really matter the sub-genre: be it cozy, police procedural or hard-boiled, as long as all the genre points are hit, I am as satisfied afterwards mentally as I would be physically by a plate piled high with comfort foods.
The Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins is one supremely satisfying example of a classic, twisty hard-boiled tale. Set in the 80s, the series follows the exploits of the assassin Quarry, who hunts down other assassins and offers their targets a deal: for a suitable fee, he’ll eliminate the killers hired to hunt them down. For a reasonable amount more, he’ll even go after the people who put out the contract in the first place. Pretty sweet deal for the usually oblivious target, and one not many turn down once they’ve been enlightened of the plot to end their lives.
Quarry’s latest job has him following the passive half of an assassination team to a small town in the midwest, where not even political maneuvering can assuage the grief of a prominent family over the disappearance of the youngest member of their clan, a beautiful teenager as well known for her promiscuity as for her artistic promise. The local dance teacher is the primary suspect for those who believe foul play was involved, but there’s no proof that the teenager didn’t just run away on her own… and now a team of hitmen has seemingly been hired to eradicate the dance teacher in as drawn-out a manner as possible.
Quarry, of course, sees an opportunity for profit, but as he navigates a world of cold-blooded killers and hot-blooded dames, he starts to realize that things are definitely not what they seem to be in quiet little Stockwell. When he’d been your ordinary, run-of-the-mill assassin, this wouldn’t have bothered him. He would have completed the job, then been on his merry way:
But I wasn’t just a guy who killed people now. I had turned into someone who actually had curiosity between his ears, who had to think about things besides the pattern of a target and what weapon to use and means of entrance and egress, from a house, from a city. I wasn’t just killing people anymore. I had put myself in the position of having to think about the reasons why people were killed, before doing any killing myself (removing the lowlife […] excluded.)
And something about this whole set-up was wrong.
The plot races through intrigue, sex and violence, twisting and turning to its conclusion and a bittersweet little coda. Along the way, Max Allan Collins indulges in the dark humor that leavens the best of the genre, such as here, where Quarry has just been bum rushed by the athletic high school ex-boyfriend of the missing girl:
Before I could recover, he hit me in the right side of the head, and my brain spun, then he gave me hard shots in the ribs, on either side, followed by a deep right fist in the pit of the stomach.
I doubled over and puked, which made him back away, not wanting to get anything on the letter jacket apparently, and that’s when I kicked out and the heel of my shoe caught him in the right knee. Hard.
“My knee!” he screamed, going down on his other one. “Not my knee!”
“Good luck with your scholarship, jackass,” I said gratuitously.
And passed out, grinning.
Quarry is an excellent addition to the catalog of hard-boiled (anti-)heroes. His exploits are different enough to bring a refreshing uniqueness to the genre without upending it entirely, and are written in such a way as to pack maximum entertainment into a fast-paced page-turner of a read. It was also fascinating to read of the mechanics involved in the assassins’ trade, not something you usually find in hard-boiled novels, but definitely used to advantage here.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.