Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The First Quarry by Max Allan Collins (Hard Case Crime)

In the Afterword of 2006's The Last Quarry, author Max Allan Collins implied that, though that book told the final Quarry story chronologically speaking, he was not averse to going back and exploring previous events in Quarry's career. For fans, the only question was, how far back would he go?

Would you believe, all the way back to the last week of 1970?

The First Quarry, just as its title implies, takes us through the events surrounding Quarry's inaugural murder for hire (technically, he killed professionally before as a sniper in Vietnam, but this is freelance), in service to the well-dressed individual known to us as "The Broker": to assassinate college professor and best-selling author K.J. Byron and burn the manuscript of his new book.

Sounds straightforward enough, but Quarry (whose real name, he reminds us, is "none of your fucking business") quickly finds that it's not all that easy. The involvement of the Chicago mafia is only one of many complications that arise unexpectedly, with The Broker called in for advice and assistance with collateral damage on more than one occasion.

Maybe it's because death isn't all Quarry's got on his mind. His focus wanders when he envies how Byron's female students thank the professor for his mentoring — on their knees. So when opportunities arise with two other women, so does Quarry (so to speak). In fact, with all the action both Quarry and Byron get, The First Quarry may be the most sexed-up novel that Hard Case Crime has yet published.

Because there's a good deal of exposition, the first portion reads a little slower than may be expected. Luckily, at just about the time I was thinking things were getting too slow, Collins follows Raymond Chandler's often-quoted advice and brings in a man with a gun. From that point on, things get really interesting, and The First Quarry delivers a number of surprises. But, unlike a lot of authors, Collins doesn't call attention to these with exclamation points or other crutches: he just writes what happens and lets our brains to do the double-take all on their own.

Collins's usually lean prose is cut even closer to the bone for this series (all the Quarry books are around 200 pages — shorter even than Hard Case Crime average of 250), and the last four pages are as action-packed as anything he has written. All of which makes The First Quarry a terrific continuation of this popular series, and another fantastic read from one of pulp's few true heirs.

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