Max Allan Collins

Ms. Michael Tree - Tough female P.I., Chicago, Il
Quarry - Professional Hit Man, 1970s and 1980s

(Jump over to read a review of Quarry in the Middle)
(Jump down to read a Guy Savage's review of The First Quarry)
(Jump over to read a review of Deadly Beloved)


"The First Quarry"

(Reviewed by Daniel Luft NOV 16, 2008)

Max Allan Collins has been writing fast-moving, first-class pulp mysteries and thrillers for nearly forty years. He has created many series characters from Nolan, the thief who devises elaborate heists, to Nathan Heller, the trench-coated, historical novel private eye who has solved nearly every famous unsolved crime of the 20th century including the Lindbergh kidnapping and the Amelia Earhart disappearance. But the most notoriously dark character Collins has created is the hitman for hire named Quarry.

Quarry was the star of one of Collins’s first novels, The Broker, back in 1976 and was part of Collins’s master’s thesis at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His early novels were a small breakthrough because Collins was one of the first writers to place crime novels firmly in the Midwest and ignored the over-explored noir lands of New York, Los Angeles and Florida. Quarry appeared in four more books until 1988 and then faded away from print and public consciousness until 2006 with the publication of The Last Quarry by the paperback house Hard Case Crime. And now he is back again with the same publisher for a prologue to the series appropriately titled The First Quarry which takes place in 1970.

Collins can be an unsubtle writer at times. He has often mentioned that Mickey Spillane is his main influence; his characters can be a bit shallow and the dialogue can be, at times, a bit comic-bookish. But Collins can work a plot like an exchange student twisting a Rubik’s in the back of the school bus. His plots glide and turn and sometimes appear to be a mess when suddenly all the stories align and all the colors fall into place. And, much like the cube in the kid’s hands, in a Collins novel, every little square is always moving quickly. His descriptions of action, reaction and violence are always simple, unemotional and entirely effective.

The Last Quarry begins with an older Quarry, retired from killing and taking it easy as a property manager, overseeing the maintenance of lakefront cottages in Minnesota. The plot opens quite simply as Quarry spots another known criminal in an all night convenience store. When he notices that this gay man is buying feminine hygiene products in the middle of the night his curiosity is piqued and he decides to follow him.

Soon Quarry uncovers a kidnapping plot with a young heiress held captive in the middle of the woods. Then he, again out of curiosity more than any emotion, kills the kidnappers and continues the ransoming of the heiress himself. Eventually Quarry finds his way into the lives of the heiress and her rich father who is much meaner than the kidnappers he has just killed. The Last Quarry is a fine, pulpy novel full of violence and humor and a much better book than 1988’s Primary Target which had been the final Quarry novel until now.

The First Quarry jumps back to the hitman’s younger days when he has just returned from Vietnam, war-rattled and amoral. He recounts the origin of his strange job and how he met the mysterious old man known only as the Broker. The Broker acts as a middle man between clients and criminals.

And, fittingly, the Broker sends Quarry out to learn his trade the same place the author did: the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. The hitman’s first job is to kill Professor K.J. Byron and destroy a manuscript during Christmas break while the college part of town is deserted. Quarry moves into the empty house across the street so he can observe the professor’s habits for a couple days and finds that the target is almost never alone. Professor Byron is consulting with students about their work, sleeping with one and breaking up with another.

Quarry also finds that he is not alone watching the house. His job turns into a mess very quickly as he meets a private detective who has been hired by Byron’s wife and is gathering evidence for a divorce case. There are also two members of a Chicago Southside gang who are enacting a turf war against the Chicago mob. They are in town to kidnap the mob boss’s daughter who happens to be the student Byron is sleeping with. Eventually the professor’s wife and the Chicago mob boss also show up on the scene and the sleepy, college town mutates into a killing zone. Throughout the violence and the plot twists, Quarry becomes nervous about missing his chance to kill Byron and fulfill his contract but never stops to ponder the lives he’s ended.

The book is a wonderful ride. Collins keeps the plot moving from the outset and lets Quarry narrate the story with a thick dose of dark humor. The author juggles a lot of characters in just 200 pages without resorting to coincidences or loose ends. He also lets the characters show up on the scene logically and never allows the plot to turn unnaturally.

Fully half of Collins’s novels can be classified as historical fiction. He’s written books starring Elliot Ness, Al Capone and Frank Nitti. He’s placed stories on the Hindenburg, on a WWII aircraft carrier and at the Black Dahlia murder scene. In those cases Collins has always proved to be a meticulous researcher who gets the period details just right. The First Quarry, which takes place 38 years ago, could qualify as a historical novel but in this case there’s a difference.

There is mention of Nixon and Kent State but this book lacks the fetishistic detail of historical fiction and it lacks a certain context to it’s time. Some details even make the book feel a bit dated because the manuscript the professor is working on is a “nonfiction novel” which sounds as old-timey as “new journalism” or “free love.” The First Quarry is something far less popular but just as smooth as good historical fiction. Collins wrote the novel as if he were writing in 1970. The book serves as a beginning to a series that began back then and carries the same attitude and voice as the early books in the series. It is easy to picture this book back in 1970, a paperback original on a spiral rack in a newsstand, sitting alongside brand new copies of books by Mickey Spillane, Dan Marlowe and John D. McDonald.

  • Amazon readers rating: 4 Starsfrom 12 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The First Quarry at Hard Case Crime

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"The First Quarry"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage NOV 6, 2008)

“I liked surviving. It was about all I valued. I’d seen plenty of evidence supporting the notion that life and death were meaningless, and that God was either non-existent or uninterested, but what was wrong with breathing? Didn’t a decent meal and getting laid and watching something funny on television or reading a good western and did I mention getting laid, didn’t that all beat nothingness inside a box six feet under all to shit? So I tend to come down hard on the survival side.”

I’d never read any of the Quarry novels, so perhaps it was appropriate for me to begin with The First Quarry, a crime novel by Max Allan Collins. Although The First Quarry is the seventh novel in the Quarry series, this latest book presents the story of how Quarry, a killer-for-hire, began his violent career. Published by Hard Case Crime, The First Quarry is a phenomenal addition to the Hard Case Canon. Appealing to fans of crime fiction and noir, Hard Case Crime continues to publish some fantastic titles--rediscovered classics and new, tough, engrossing reads. For those addicts among us, Hard Case Crime even has a book club. I should know because I signed up earlier this year. It’s a hell of a deal.

Well enough preamble. Back to the book. Set in 1970, the book begins with hitman Quarry on his first job, stuck in a newly built and unoccupied house in Iowa City conducting a stakeout of a libidinous professor who’s written the bestseller Collateral Damage. Although it’s the Christmas break, the Professor is still meeting students at his home, but the Professor isn’t driven by altruism. Instead, as Quarry continues his stakeout, it becomes glaringly obvious that egotistical Professor K.J. Byron entertains a constant stream of beautiful young graduate students who pass through his bedroom. Quarry, frozen, bored and eating whatever junk food he can buy at the local convenience store, maintains surveillance of Byron’s house, waiting for an opportune moment to make his hit.

From the start, the situation becomes increasingly more complicated. Byron’s female students rotate in and out, and there’s also a jealous wife somewhere in the background. But things become even murkier when Quarry discovers that he’s not the only man staking out Byron’s house. It seems that several interested parties are watching Byron, and there’s no shortage of people who would like to see the professor dead. The fact that Byron is also indulging in a steamy dalliance with Annette Girard, the daughter of brutal Chicago mob boss, Lou Girardelli complicates matters even further, and it’s not long before the bodies start piling up.

This terrific crime novel grabbed me from page one. Quarry, and that’s a fake name by the way, is a fascinating character. Told in the first person by Quarry, the novel has an easy, readable, almost affable style, which is in complete contrast to the action and the inevitable violence. Reading the novel, I so enjoyed Quarry’s pithy world-view that I almost forgot his contract obligations. While Quarry is a stone-cold killer, the novel spends some time explaining his code of ethics and the moral justifications he applies to his career in death. Shaped by Vietnam, Quarry sees no difference in working for the army and working as a killer-for-hire:

“And getting back from Vietnam is where I should start, really, to fill you in a little on how I became somebody who killed for money. Or I should say somebody who killed people for good money, because in Nam I killed people for shit change, didn’t I?”

While Quarry accepts that his targets are “obituaries waiting to be written” the fact that the professor is a slimeball, just makes his job a little more pleasurable.

Given the subject matter of the book, it may seem odd that the plot is laced with a great deal of humor. While the humor is in contrast to the subject matter, the two elements are not jarring, and this is thanks to the talent of the author who manages to create, very successfully, a murderer with a great sense of humor--a man we can’t help liking in spite of his profession. It’s no small feat to pull off the juxtaposition of cynical murder and humor, but Max Alan Collins manages it and manages it to perfection:

“A woman who was presumably the mother of at least one or two of the eight or nine turning the swimming pool into a combination daycare center and horror show padded over in a bright orange one-piece bathing suit. She’d put on a little weight having kiddies, but there was no doubt why someone had wanted to have kiddies with her in the first place--she was a redhead with an Afro-ish tower of permed but tousled hair and a roundish pleasant face and displayed the kind of curvy frame that makes you really lenient about cellulite.”

Finally, the novel manages to purvey the perfect flavor of the 70s and that includes being decidedly un-PC.

  • Amazon readers rating: 4 starsfrom 12 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The First Quarry at Hard Case Crime



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Nathan Heller series: Road to Perdition: Quarry novels: Mallory Mystery: Historical Mysteries: Eliot Ness Novels: Ms. Tree Series: Other: writing as Patrick Culhane: with Mickey Spillane: with Matthew Clemens: Movies from books:

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Max Allan CollinsMax Allan Collins, born in 1948, is a prolific mystery writer. He has written novels, screenplays, comic books, comic strips, trading cards, short stories, movie novelizations and historical fiction. He's also created several series characters, most notably comic book P.I. Ms. Tree and historical private eye Nate Heller.

A frequent Mystery Writers of America "Edgar" nominee, he has earned an unprecedented fifteen Private Eye Writers of America "Shamus" nominations for his historical thrillers, winning for his Nathan Heller novels, True Detective (1983) and Stolen Away (1991). His graphic novel Road to Perdition was developed into a film in 2002.

He is also unique in that he has written so many media tie-in books, comics, video games and puzzles, especially for CSI, that Entertainment Weekly has given him the term "the novelization king."

He is also an independent filmmaker, writing and directing movies for Lifetime, HBO and innovative made-for-DVD feature. His one man show, "Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life," was nominated for an Edgar for Best Play in 2004.

Collins lives in Muscatine, Iowa, with his wife, writer Barbara Collins; they have collaborated on three novels and numerous short stories. Their son Nathan graduated in 2005 with majors in computer science and Japanese at the University of Iowa in nearby Iowa City, and has just returned from taking a year of post-graduate studies in Japan.

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