Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Pierce’s Picks: “The Wrong Quarry”

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

The Wrong Quarry, by Max Allan Collins (Hard Case Crime):
Author Collins has now written as many novels about his hit-man protagonist, Quarry, since he revived him (in 2006’s The Last Quarry) for publisher Hard Case Crime as he did during the 1970s and ’80s: five. This latest outing is an especially good one for the character. Quarry--keeping up his recent pattern of tracking down other hit men, identifying their targets, and then hiring himself out to permanently remove those killers before they can complete their assignments--is initially found in these pages dogging a man named Ronald Mateski to the small town of Stockwell, Missouri. Mateski is a flabby, flame-bearded antiques dealer who works off the books as the generally “passive” member of a killing duo, staking out the real assassin’s target and learning as much as he can about the intended victim, then disappearing before the “active” partner rolls in. The setting is the early 1980s, and the target for Mateski and his cohort is one Roger Vale, the owner of a local dance school, who was allegedly involved in the not-too-long-ago disappearance--perhaps murder--of Candy Stockwell, a captivating and promiscuous 17-year-old aspiring beauty queen from the town’s wealthiest family.

With Vale’s begrudging approval (it’s the dance instructor’s life at stake, after all), Quarry follows through on his task. He waits until Mateski has completed his surveillance, then watches for and ultimately expunges the assassin who’s arrived in Stockwell to finish the “hit.” That done, Quarry goes back to Vale, this time offering to identify and take out the person or persons responsible for hiring out his homicide. This is where The Wrong Quarry earns its multiple-interpretation title. For while Collins’ 30-something anti-hero protagonist poses as a journalist interested in exposing the sordid story of Vale’s role in Candy Stockwell’s vanishing, he begins to wonder whether the dance instructor really had any hand in that at all, or whether Candy’s clan was barking up the wrong tree when they apparently targeted Vale for some deadly vengeance. Assisted by Candy Stockwell’s free-loving aunt, Quarry takes on what is essentially a detective’s role, endeavoring to determine the real fate of the missing teenager, and who else might have had a hand in it.

Collins’ Quarry novels owe great debts to mid-20th-century hard-boiled paperback fiction--the Gold Medal titles and others. They’re page-turners, but with sex scenes that you would not have found in most of those cheap old paperbacks, sexism you would have found in such books, and ample helpings of humor to make everything go down much more easily. A special treat in this 10th series entry is that Collins applies much of his robust wit to small-time antiques dealers and folks who place too much importance on beauty pageants.

It always takes a bit of time for me to wrap my mind around the realization that I’m rooting for a killer to make things right at the end of these stories, but I am rarely disappointed by Collins’ efforts. Once again, The Wrong Quarry hits all the right notes.

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