Friday, October 9, 2009

Quarry in the Middle by Max Allan Collins (Hard Case Crime)

A new Max Allan Collins novel is always a source of excitement at my house. I would have read Quarry in the Middle as soon as it came in the mail — but my wife grabbed it first, while I satisfied myself watching Caveman, Collins's fascinating documentary on Alley Oop.

There are quotes in the front of Quarry in the Middle from Dashiell Hammett, Akira Kurosawa, and Sergio Leone. What do these men have in common? All three have written or directed a version of the same story: a loner playing both parties of a situation for his own profit. It's a very old story, at least as old as Carlo Goldoni's 18th-century commedia dell'arte Servant of Two Masters, but Hammett brought it to 20th-century readers in his "Continental Op" novel Red Harvest.

Red Harvest is considered to be a direct influence on Kurosawa's samurai film Yojimbo (though Kurosawa himself cited The Glass Key). Leone later remade Yojimbo into A Fistful of Dollars. (Leone was sued by Kurosawa for neglecting to purchase remake rights; Kurosawa stated he made more money off Leone's film than his own).

Interestingly enough, all three protagonists are "men with no name": Hammett's hero is known only as "the Continental Op," Kurosawa's samurai names himself after a plant he sees nearby, and Leone's character has popularized the phrase to the extent that he personifies it. But enough with the history lesson; a good portion of readers probably know all that stuff, anyway.

Where The Last Quarry showed the end of his career and The First Quarry showed the beginning, Quarry in the Middle understandably fills in some blanks. It's set in the mid-1980s. (I'm guessing late 1986; Collins doesn't say outright, but he gives various historical clues.) No longer working for The Broker, Quarry has begun a new kind of business. Using The Broker's files, he gets hired killers' targets to hire him to kill the killers. How very meta!

Following his latest ... uh, quarry ("a guy named Monahan"), Quarry finds himself in a town with the unlikely name of Haydee's Port, Illinois — home of the Paddlewheel ("a mini–Las Vegas under one roof") and its official digs, the Wheelhouse Motel — and a hell of a place to be unless you can think on your feet. Luckily, our hired-killer-with-no-name (at least not one he's telling us) has shown himself to be quite adept at thinking ... on his feet, on his back, etc.

Quarry finds out Monahan is gunning for Richard Cornell, owner of the Paddlewheel, and that he's been hired by Jerry G, son of mob-connected Gigi Giovanni, owner of Cornell's main competition, the less-classy Lucky Devil. A man who knows how to turn every situation to his best advantage, Quarry takes an assignment to knock off the Giovannis.

The Quarry series contains Collins's leanest and tightest writing, and Quarry in the Middle is no exception. Collins blends past and present seamlessly, alternating between telling Quarry's back story and the current one with unmatched skill.

I finished Quarry in the Middle in two sittings, or about an hour and a half. It's a very quick read and one you may want to start right over again from the beginning. Collins's take on Yojimbo is fresh yet familiar, and it's always fun to watch Quarry do his thing. Here's hoping the series continues, filling in even more blank spots in the timeline along the way.

Nitpicker's Note: At one point Quarry mentions watching Turner Classic Movies. But, since the channel debuted in 1994 and Quarry in the Middle is set in the mid-'80s, Quarry must have actually been watching American Movie Classics in its heyday (perhaps with the great Bob Dorian as host).

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