Sunday, September 13, 2009

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

Since September 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, I will be reprinting my reviews of the first 40 books from my old (and now mostly defunct) Craig's Book Club site — 2 for the first 10 days, and 1 a day for the next 20. I hope you enjoy this refresher course in the variety of crime fiction that this fascinating publisher has to offer.

Thirty years ago, author Max Allan Collins created the first hired-assassin series character in Quarry, the protagonist of his novel, The Broker (later republished simply as Quarry). Quarry appeared in four more novels, ending with 1986's Primary Target, and then didn't show his face (except for a few short stories, eventually collected along with the novel in Quarry's Greatest Hits) for almost two decades, until a young filmmaker named Jeffrey Goodman politely badgered the author to let him make a short film of one of the short stories, "A Matter of Principal."

Impressed by Goodman's tenacity, Collins eventually gave in with the provision that Collins himself would write the screenplay. (His own bad experiences in Hollywood during the making of The Expert had made Collins wary of others directing his material, and Collins has at this writing helmed six features himself, several of which are available, including Goodman's short film, in the DVD box set Max Allan Collins' Black Box Collection.)

The short film was a hit on the festival circuit and won a number of awards. This led to Goodman's idea for making "A Matter of Principal" into a feature, which would of course require another screenplay from Collins. Coincidentally, Charles Ardai had also asked Collins for a new Quarry novel to publish for his Hard Case Crime line, and it only made sense to combine the requests. The Last Quarry is therefore an original Quarry novel and also an unofficial novelization of the feature film, eventually titled The Last Lullaby. (Collins has vast experience with novelizations, including novelizing the screenplay — not written by him — of his own graphic novel, Road to Perdition.)

The Last Quarry is some of the best and tightest fiction Max Allan Collins has ever written (and it's dedicated to the director "who brought my killer to life"). Anyone who has read "A Matter of Principal" is going to feel a strong sense of déjà vu for the first three chapters, but that's just the lead-in to the real story as a millionaire hires Quarry to kill a meek librarian, whom Quarry then proceeds to fall for, making the all-too-familiar mistake of mixing emotions with business.

As in its Primary Target, previously unforeseen connections appear between characters, making for some interesting surprises in this concise suspenser. Collins doles out the words in The Last Quarry only as needed, in keeping with Quarry's laconic personality — he doesn't waste time, words, or bullets — and fills barely 200 pages with the same amount of story that a less careful author would stretch to twice that length. And this killer shows a distinct sense of humor, peppering his narrative with occasional asides that raise a chuckle or sometimes even a full laugh.

It is obvious that Collins likes Quarry (and he seems to contain a good amount of Collins himself, based on what I've seen from interviews on his DVDs) and is having a lot of fun with this "last" outing (at least chronologically speaking, according to the Afterword — others eventually followed). Simply put, it is a perfect example of Collins' combined talent and skill. Two for the Money was my introduction to his work, and if there's any justice in the world, The Last Quarry will garner scores of new fans to this and Collins' other series characters (like private investigator Nathan Heller).

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