Quarry in the Black by Max Allan Collins is the latest thriller featuring assassin Quarry, as he is hired on a political assignment to take out a Civil Rights crusader campaigning for the underdog in the presidential election. (Available today!)
Quarry belongs to that bottom-feeder profession called the assassin: snuffing out human life for a well-financed payday. Somehow, this blight of a profession has been refracted through the Hollywood lens to be fashionable, cool. A slew of examples includes Leon: The Professional, Pulp Fiction, Gross Pointe Blank, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Whole Nine Yards, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Le Femme Nikita, and the list streams on.
In order to make such a vile, distasteful profession more appealing, most of the antiheroes have some kind of endearing quirk and, more often than not, their targets are other bad guys, which appeases audiences so they wince a bit less. Producers and authors know if they create a character too unpleasant, then they may as well jump out of a plane without a parachute—or that’s my theory at least because, as I mentioned, the majority of assassins seem to have that je ne sais quoi effect, making them far more likable than they have any right to be. (More authors writing about this human benthos should read Richard Stark’s Parker series—here’s a career criminal presented warts and all, and either you like him or you don’t; no warmth there.)
Let’s take a look at the latest Quarry novel by Max Allan Collins. It’s 1972, and Quarry is a twenty-something who has served in Vietnam. Quarry is not his real name but an alias given to him by the Broker who says he’s “hollowed out ‘as if from rock.’ ” The Broker is the intermediate setting up contracts between Quarry the eradicator (Kids in the Hall, anyone?) and the client requesting the extermination. Quarry usually pockets $5k a hit, though this latest one is worth $25k. He has a partner this time out, named Boyd, who collects intel on the target and occasionally provides “back-up and escape support.”
Boyd is already in St. Louis surveilling their mark, the Reverend Raymond Wesley Lloyd, a civil rights activist considered by some to be the heir to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy. Quarry almost turned the assignment down because there are political ties attached to the good reverend as he’s trying to help elect George McGovern for president. But it’s explained by the Broker that Lloyd deals in drugs and is otherwise dirty. That’s enough to outweigh the politics obstacle, and Quarry our killer is onboard.
That is, until Quarry beds a racist woman who may be working for the client—a spy, so to speak, sent to watch the hit go down. An exchange between Quarry and Boyd mirrors my thoughts on fictional killers-for-hire:
“I got onboard because the Broker said this wasn't really politicalor racial. Assured me that our subject is a bad boy who's diddling his own people.”
His eyes lifted ceiling-ward. “Oh, fucking please! Don't go getting self-righteous on me again. You with a conscience makes me sick. It's like John Wayne sticking up for the Indians.”
“Stop bitching and think, Boyd. If we're doing a job for a bunch of racists…if that's what this job is about…it changes everything.”
“Does it? Tell me. Is the way the money spends any different?”
Sure enough, the comely blonde is working for a man named Starkweather who runs another kind of “church”—one where they hang photos of the white-as-snow Jesus with a loving painting of Adolph Hitler. Starkweather, Grand Dragon of the Missouri Ku Klux Klan and founder of the White Christian Freedom Party, admits he was misguided in butting his nose in on Quarry's operation.
Now, I was thinking this was a perfect spot for Quarry to exit stage right and tell the Broker that the client screwed up—but we wouldn't have a book and our man in St. Louis wouldn't get a chance to hopefully kick some neo-Nazi ass. In all fairness to Quarry, he does talk to the Broker, who manages to convince Quarry to stay put and finish the job.
We are continually reminded by Quarry that $25k goes a long way in staying on board. But things do get complicated, much more complicated, because, after all, this is the author who brought us Road to Perdition. That complex tale of human retribution featured a crime syndicate enforcer betrayed by his bosses that ends up fleeing with his son in tow.
The thing was, I really, really would rather put a bullet in Commander Starkweather's purported brain than take down that black guy across the street, hypocritical dope peddler though he may be.
Only…a guy in my business could not afford to be fussy or picky or any such shit where the clients were concerned. I fucking knew that. Like the targets, they were never stellar human beings.
But, goddamnit—Nazis just rubbed me the wrong way.
These pages practically turn themselves. I read it in one sitting and found myself longing to see how Mr. Collins was going to get Quarry into deeper misfortune and then yanked out again. Sure Quarry is another infuriating killer with a heart of gold (albeit a sliver at best lines his core), but less we forget, Mr. Collins started this series in the 1970s and gets a pass for being ahead of the curve when it comes to softening the heavy.
I like the realistic maturity level of his protagonist. Quarry is in tune with civil rights but homophobe backwards and routinely bullies his co-worker, Boyd, who he believes is gay. So not quite as progressive as many other authors would have drawn him to fit in with the enduring climate.
Very much like being back in the 1970s with the bell-bottoms, the belief that free-sex was still possible, “American Woman” playing on the turntable, and the notion there was still hope that Senator McGovern could pull off a win against President Nixon. For a moment, for those so inclined, it’s all there again—the race is on, and maybe the other side will win because there’s a heavy in their midst named Quarry.
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David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.