Book Review : Max Allan Collins - Quarry in the Black (2016)
Max Allan Collins is an American author of hardboiled fiction perhaps best knows to the uninitiated for penning a graphic novel titled Road to Perdition, which was adapted to cinema by iconic director Sam Mendes. Fans of the genre know him better for writing long-lasting characters such as PI Nate Heller, professional thief Nolan and the guy we're interested in today: a nebulous hitman named Quarry. I've picked up Collins' new novel Quarry in the Black for two reasons: 1) it mysteriously landed in my mailbox and 2) the Quarry television series was warmly suggested to me by people of great taste, so I figured I'd break the ice first. The experience was much more pleasant than anticipated, to be honest. Quarry is possibly the most interesting hitman to grace pop culture since the excellence of execution himself, Bret Hart.
Missouri, 1972. Quarry is being handed a job by The Broker, the shadowy figure standing between him and people who want their enemies dead: kill Reverend Raymond Wesley Lloyd, a civil rights activist campaigning for George McGovern in the ongoing election. Quarry is not crazy about the assignment but accepts it anyway because of the lucrative payout. The job is quite complicated. The reverend is a well-protected man, so it requires infiltration, patience and opportunism. Quarry's client isn't the only party who wants Raymond Wesley Lloyd dead, though. The local white supremacists are going at him hard and Quarry continuously finds them in his way. So, if the white supremacists are going after the reverend on their own, who is it exactly Quarry is working for?
If you had told me earlier this year that I would enjoy a war-veteran-turned-hitman novel, I would'e laughed you out of the room. I have a track record of profound hatred for these stereotypical tropes, yet I quite enjoyed Quarry in the Black. What makes Quarry different from every other boring misundertood hitmen with a heart of gold out there? The answer is simple, but its implications are quite complex: there is a constant tension between the material and the ethical in Quarry in the Black. Quarry isn't a moral person and he's aware than thinking of himself as such would make him a hypocrite. But he's not amoral either. He entertains no illusions about the nature of his job, yet consciously tries not to make the world a worst place and this impulse is not exactly noble either. It's self-preservation. Murder has been a senseless thing he's good at since the war and Quarry wants to keep it that way. He wants to keep being able to look at himself in the mirror. He's a quite complex, yet compelling guy.
"Do you believe I'll shoot you if you try anything smart?"
"Even try anything dumb, Becky, I'll shoot you. I'll be sorry. I'll feel terrible about it in the morning. But you'll be fucking dead, understood?" (p. 78-79)
Quarry gets involved with a woman named Becky early in Quarry in the Black. This relationship is important in order to understand who he is. When Becky is being harassed by two guys at the bar, Quarry sees an opportunity to do something good and offload his inherent guilt for a night. Becky (as illustrated above), turned out not to be a damsel in distress and therefore justifies our otherwise ethical protagonist to take control of the situation by doing what he does best: violence. The understated moral complexity of the Becky scenes are delightful. Quarry is both heartbroken that his efforts to be good have been vain and relieved that she gave him a reason to be bad, because that's what he's doing for a living: being the baddest motherfucker with a gun. Sometimes originality lies in execution, guys. Max Allan Collins sure gave us hard evidence of it with Quarry in the Black.
Another thing Collins does quite well is historical perspective. Part of Quarry in the Black is happening in Ferguson, Missouri and there's a conscious desire to discuss racial tensions and injustice in the book. Collins never becomes enamored with this desire, though and doesn't let it override his story. He illustrates racism quite powerfully by having terrible things said by otherwise decent characters. The world is not separated between saintly progressives and evil racists. It especially wasn't in 1972. I'm sure it's a seducing though for storytellers because it would be easy to portray, but Max Allan Collins doesn't bite. Reality is more complicated than the good vs evil story the majority of people are telling themselves and Quarry in the Black is a testament to that complexity. Collins understands the nuances of historical perspective extremely well. You can't have have too much revisionism, you can't have none at all. You need the exact amount and you can't ever be wrong.
My first experience with the writing of Max Allan Collins was a success. I mean, Quarry in the Black isn't the most original novel I've ever read, but it is crafted with such subtlety and nuance that is breathes a new life in otherwise recycled ideas. Sometimes, doing things well matters more than doing new things. I will definitely give the series a shot now that I've become acquainted with such a compelling character. I have to admit picturing him as Logan Marshall-Green throughout my reading, who really fits the tormented vision I have of the character. Quarry in the Black is a lot of fun. It has the necessary layers of complexity to be enjoyed by every reader out there. Max Allan Collins might not be a household named like James Ellroy or Dennis Lehane, but he's pretty great at that writing thing and whether you want classic crime or a complex character study, he offers both in his latest novel Quarry in the Black.