4 out of 5
Probably the most repeated, positive quality I’ll tag to Max Allan Collins is solidity. His books are reliably solid. Maybe walking a fairly predictable noir line, and maybe written with a sort of airport-paperback pulp vernacular – like a really accessible version of the tone and lingo – but all that’s in service of delivering a stream of books that you can pluck from at random, and ensure you’re successfully entertained for 200 or so pages.
For such workman consistency, it seems fitting that, as regards Collins’ Quarry series – Quarry being the nickname of the otherwise-unnamed hitman-for-hire star of the books – after returning to it for the Hard Case Crime imprint and telling us the “first” Quarry story and the “last” Quarry story, these appreciative bookends would then be bested by Quarry in the Middle, which stands above the writer’s steady baseline as a What Comes Next? page turner.
While the middle of any given storyline might be churn, lacking the splash or spectacle of beginnings and endings, here, we find our titular terse killer at an interesting crossroads, beyond his work ‘neath middleman The Broker, but still a bit off from retirement considerations: working for himself, with his fluctuating moral code which accepts that if people are contracted to be killed by another – or in this case, the one being contracted – something was done, somewhere along the lines, relatively justifying that kill. Including for Quarry himself, he acknowledges. The confidence and comfort that this position lends him translates exactly into the tone of the narrative, and prevents Collins from having to play anything too cagily: Quarry knows the job by now, and executes it at his leisure. He learns about new developments and wrinkles when we do, and because there’s a clear “Last Quarry” tale in his future, there’s no need to pretend like the various beatings and gunshots that occur throughout are going to be lethal – we can just luxuriate in a job well done.
That “job” is clear – one casino owner in a small town is being targeted by another; Quarry gets himself hired by the former to take out the latter – but staffed with a compellingly cinematic cast that are fun to ping off this self-assured version of the hitman. And again, since Quarry is operating pretty much out in the open, subterfuge is employed purposefully, and not in a panic; we’re in on it; this is all a victory lap.
But we get ahead of ourselves here and there: tawdry language is certainly part of the scene, but parts of the book linger on the boinking and hardons a bit too pornagraphically for my tastes. I’m fine with ogles and some bald and brash language, but I don’t need the running commentary that starts giving me play-by-play. Sometimes Collins’ nails the balance, and he seems to lampshade this problem slightly towards the end of the book, with Quarry admitting the small town in which he’s operating has made him “slutty,” but these were the only parts of the book that felt indulgent in the wrong way, and required for its success.
Otherwise, Quarry in the Middle is a standout – a front-to-back page turner that’s a high point for the character, and also for the writer.