The First Quarry – Max Allan Collins

3 out of 5

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As its title suggests: Max Allan Collins fills us in on Quarry’s first gig. …And since I’ve actually only read about Quarry’s last gig, I can’t say much about what’s wholly new in this book and what’s additional dressing to already known details, but Collins is a solid writer, and taking this on the level as a book about a hitman’s initial job, it succeeds at its pulpy quest of giving us a good interplay of snark, action, tension, sex, and violence.

Our unnamed narrator – eventually nicknamed Quarry by his taskmaster, The Broker – is disillusioned and aimless after getting back from Vietnam and finding his wife shacked up with another man. This is a bit in the past at this point, though, as we pick up with Quarry hunkererd down in a model home, staking out his target across the way – a philandering college professor – as he calmly fills us in on the step-by-step of being contacted by Broker; of making the cold, logical leaps to being okay at killing for money (once a client has designated someone to die, they’re going to be killed in some manner or another – so it might as well be him, and he might as well get paid for it); and then to being tested for his profession with this current stakeout, which is to end with the destruction of a book the professor is working on, and his death.

Quarry’s patter is witty, but focused. Like many great noir / pulp character, he’s aware of his limitations but also confident in his skills, and Collins finds a good balance between fact-of-the-matter and cracking wise, although, at times, he seems to be trying too hard to differentiate this Quarry as a youngster, and to make the 70s setting – constant music and TV references – clear. Later on, this forced aspect of the narration crops up in overly explicit sex scenes, and toying with how far to push era-accurate racism; it comes across as very try-hard to make the book seem raw and “young,” when the story itself, and Quarry’s general ‘tude, carries the thing perfectly fine on its own.

It’s a pretty short read, just breaking 200 pages, so it doesn’t have the chance to go too far afield, and most of it works well: Collins knows his genre, and adds wrinkle after wrinkle to this “simple” hit, while keeping things very grounded – manageable for a first-timer – and allowing for the impulsivities of the same. So despite its tonal missteps, it maintains Max’s solid, reliable track record: you know you can pick up a genre Collins book and get your distraction kicks for however many pages.