In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a fan of author Max Allan Collins and have written in other places about his various books. With that out in the open, this is my first foray into his Quarry series, with more experience reading his true crime/historical mysteries led by Detective Nathan Heller. The Quarry series is heavily steeped in the world of Mickey Spillane (of whom Collins has worked with previously), with its mix of old-fashioned noir mystery and tons of salacious sex. The mystery of The Wrong Quarry is fairly light and unmemorable, but Collins’ rapid-fire prose is enough to entice you to spend time with this hardboiled assassin.
Quarry is a different kind of hitman. He tracks down assassins tasked with murdering someone, then goes to the murdered party and offers to kill their soon-to-be dispatchers. In this case, he’s hired by dance teacher Richard Vale to find out who wants him dead. Killing the assassins is the easy part as Quarry finds himself mired in small-town politics and a confrontation with a possible serial killer.
Reading The Wrong Quarry was a unique experience because I’m used to Collins’ meticulously researched events connecting back to key events of Americana in previous novels. The great thing is you don’t need prior knowledge from previous books to understand events, especially in the Quarry series. It’s easy to figure out Quarry is in a new position in this book, but the events of the mystery exist in a vacuum. I am tempted to read the earlier books and figure out how he ended up as a freelancer, but The Wrong Quarry is just as fun as a standalone mystery.
Collins’ prose is light, gritty, and violent. He lacks little compunction with his emphasis on the violence and bloodiness of Quarry’s job. He uses the same deftness in the copious sex scenes littering the story. (The cover image and sex are throwbacks to dime paperbacks of the '40s. It’s a trash novel in the nostalgic sense.) The scenes are saucy, frank, and provide titillation even if they become a taste repetitious by the end. The small-town atmosphere of Stockwell, Missouri where events take place is declared by the few characters we’re dealing with. Quarry is front and center while only about five additional characters make any impact in events. It works for the mystery format, as well as emphasizing Quarry’s isolation within his chosen profession. By story’s end, when Quarry is feeling lonely and calls one of the characters he, and the audience, understand there’s no room for emotional attachments in this man’s life.
(Editor's Note: Spoiler warning for this paragraph) The human angle doesn’t need to be reiterated time and again; we feel it. The mystery, however, feels a taste trite. The main character we’re told time and again couldn’t have done it turns out to be the character, which makes the revelation of a serial murderer in the final two chapters feel superfluous, as if Collins wants us to give the readers their money’s worth for backing the story into a corner. Furthermore, there’s a bad taste to having a fake homosexual be the murderer which makes sense to the 1980s aesthetic the book is in, but is hard to swallow in 2014.
Overall, Max Allan Collins’ continues to be the master of history with his books. The Wrong Quarry is makes up in grit what it lacks in weight, and while the mystery isn’t as fleshed out as I’d like, I enjoyed the journey the characters took me on. This is a great entry into Collins’ world, so if you like it be sure to check out his other writings.