Thursday, October 02, 2014

My Bouchercon 2014 panels: Max Allan Collins just wants to have fun

Max Allan Collins will discuss other writers during a panel I'll moderate at Bouchercon 2014 next month, but his own work is worth reading as well. His three most recent Quarry novels, the latest in a series that began in the 1970s, suggest that Collins shared the savvy professionalism of the pulp and paperback-original writers who will be the panel's main subject.

The three books—Quarry in the Middle, Quarry's Ex, and The Wrong Quarry, each published by Hard Case Crime—begin with the hitman/entrepreneur protagonist, Quarry, embarking on a job. (Collins sets the books in the Reagan era and has just enough fun with the period's social, political, and, most of all, musical trappings to remind readers of the setting without getting in the story's way.)

Quarry became a hitman after military service in Vietnam, where he learned to kill; killed his boss after the boss cheated him; then created and exploited a niche in the murder market: He uses his boss' old files to track the contract killers long enough to figure out who their targets are, then goes to the targets and offers to kill the killers for a handsome fee—which he does in due course, about a third of the way through each book. And that's where the real fun starts, and Quarry is forced to turn detective and figure out who the bad guys really are.

This format lets Collins exploit any number of crime and adventure conventions. Quarry is a disillusioned Vietnam vet, though without the psychological baggage. He's a tough-guy ass-kicker with a bit of the wise-cracking self-awareness of the Saint. He's a mildly self-effacing babe magnet, with an amiable susceptibility to women, a Shell Scott with more sex and fewer extravagant anatomical similes. And, when compelled to figure out who's really who, and who wants what and why, he makes a more than credible detective.

Along the way, the books' (possible) crime-fiction references include Richard Stark's Parker: Quarry in the Middle has one character apprehensive that Quarry plans to rob a casino, a la The Handle. But Quarry laughs and reassures his nervous interlocutor that he, Quarry, is part of no plunder squad. (One of Collins' other series pays amusing tribute to crime and espionage classics in such titles as A Shroud for Aquarius and The Baby Blue Rip-Off.)

I don't know how the Quarry series has changed over the years, whether the earlier novels are more straightforward hitman tales than these later ones. Nor do I know whether those early books partake as freely of the crime-fiction smorgasbord. But Quarry in the Middle, Quarry's Ex, and The Wrong Quarry take a '50s-style tough guy, give him a '60-style back story, and set the results in the 1970s. Pastiche? Maybe, but by God, Collins pulls it off, and has lots of fun doing it.
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Max Allan Collins will be part of my Beyond Hammett, Chandler, and Spillane: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Eras panel Friday, Nov. 14, 3 p.m. at Bouchercon 2014 in Long Beach. See you there.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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10 Comments:

Blogger Eric Beetner said...

As a proud owner of all the Quarry books, I can tell you even the early books have the same great energy and feel. It's quite amazing Collins has been able to keep up the quality on the series. They are indeed most reminiscent of the Parker series (by design) and I think Quarry has held my interest over more books than even Parker did. I'll be first in line for the new one.

October 02, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Eric: I may elbow you out of the way waiting for Quarry's Choice. These three books have me eagerly seeking out the older ones, too..

Being fairly new to Collins' work, I wonder if the early Quarry novels have the pop-culture references and tongue-in-cheek references of the early books.

October 02, 2014  
Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

The 70's influence you are forgetting about is men's action/adventure fiction. These types of books were huge from 1969 through the 80's. Not only was Collins, and the Quarry character, influenced by these books but, arguably, it has it's roots in this type of fiction.

http://violentworldofparker.com/?p=8132

October 06, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, who started that boom?

October 06, 2014  
Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

The men's action/adventure books, by most counts, started when Don Pendleton published the first Executioner book, War Against the Mafia, in 1969. They proved to be very popular and many imitators and other series came after, a lot of them vigilante type fiction.

These books, to me, are just part of a long history of fiction (mostly paperback) that goes back to the spy fiction boom in the 60's, and the detective fiction before it, and the pulp fiction before it.

Pendleton himself wrote the first few dozen in the series bringing the initial story arc to a close before licensing out the rights to Gold Eagle where they have remained ever since. I like the original novels but not so much the hundreds of later ones.

October 06, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, I'm not sure whether I'm a potential fan of the genre, or just a fan of well-written books. I'm plowing through the Quarrys at a rate of about a book and a half a day, and I'm finding particular things I like about them. I wonder if I would find similar features in other men's adventure books or crime books influenced them.

October 06, 2014  
Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

Here's the thing. A lot of these types of books aren't really that great, it can be like panning for gold. A couple of factors come in to play. The publishing pace of them, some series were published monthly. House names, the quality will vary in a lot of series, sometimes from title to title. We(fans) of these books know they are/can be terribly written in many cases but don't care. That's part of the charm and we still love them.

"They don't write 'em like that anymore, so be warned. That can be good or bad, depending on your mood." -- Bill Crider


In some of the books you'll get lines like: "The mad, mindless yammer of the sub-machine gun's death carol pounded into the room and rolled over the court yard in spastic surges of sound." and you either like that kind of thing or don't. As Bill said, you are either in the mood for that kind of thing or not.

I would say if you are at a used book or thrift store and see some men's titles and the price is cheap, grab 'em. That's what a lot of us do. It doesn't matter if you grab a middle book in a series because often they are standalone-ish and can be read out of order. So if you find a John Eagle Expeditor #5 book, go ahead and jump in. (There are exceptions. The Lone Wolf books should be read in order. It is the rare series that has a definite end and a close to the story arc. In fact most of the books were written before publication. They were written by Barry Malzberg: http://newimprovedgorman.blogspot.com/2012/06/lone-wolf-series-by-mike-barrybarry_06.html )

It's an interesting sub-genre of books. A bit of a guilty pleasure. And a lot of fun for what it is.

October 12, 2014  
Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

I meant to add that there is a GREAT blog that covers this type of fiction called Glorious Trash. Check it out.

http://glorioustrash.blogspot.com/

October 12, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian: Thanks for the link. I've added Glorious Trash to by blog roll. I was pleased to see that the blog includes several posts about Nazel.

Eric Beetner, if you happen still to be following this thread, I've read all the Quarrys since my most recent comment, and I look forward to the new one from Hard Case early next year.

October 12, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, in re quality of writing and pace of publication, even Street Wars, which I love, contains an occasional slapdash misspelling of the kind that drives me nuts when I encounter it in a hardback or trade paperback from a big publisher. And some of the cover copy on these books was obviously written in great haste. But you know what? I take that haste as just one more aspect of the books' frenetic haste.

Yep, I'll keep my eyes open at thrift stores and secondhand bookshops. But I'll also use you, Glorious Trash, Max Allan Collins, Gary Phillips, Eric Beetner, Johnny Shaw, and anyone else I know as guides to the good ones.

And you know what? I like the ring of "death carol." Sounds like a good title.

October 12, 2014  

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