If you ever need reminding that mankind has stumbled seriously off the ideal evolutionary arc toward peace, mutual respect and enlightenment, simply type the words “hit man” into your computer’s search engine. When I did that recently, it fetched up the story of a 21-year-old Michigan woman who, in 2013, allegedly sought the services of a contract killer to do away with her husband because “it was easier than divorcing him.” (Unfortunately for her, she was caught on videotape making the offer.) I also found a 2014 piece about a Kentucky man who, after supposedly arranging a murder-for-hire that successfully eliminated his parents and younger sister, then turned around and took the gunman’s life rather than fork over his fee. And of course, the tabloid media were abuzz earlier this month with reports that Drew Peterson, the 61-year-old former Illinois police sergeant who was convicted in 2012 of slaying his third wife (and whose fourth wife hasn’t been spotted since 2007), had been charged with employing someone to rub out the state’s attorney who sent him to prison for 38 years.
According to this 2009 Slate piece, America’s FBI “works undercover on an average of 70 to 90 murder-for-hire cases a year.” A more recent report explained that “140 cases not tied to organized crime are currently pending, many of which involve [prison] inmates”—and some of which were negotiated online.
Is it any wonder that crime fiction, which serves in part to reflect society’s manifest ills, has been rife over the decades with tales of professional killers? Moviegoers can expect to see the premiere this coming August of Hitman: Agent 47, based on a video game series and a 2007 film starring Timothy Olyphant. But that’s only the latest in a lengthy succession of similarly themed pictures, including This Gun for Hire (1942), Charles Bronson’s The Mechanic (1972), Pulp Fiction (1997), No Country for Old Men (2007), In Bruges (2008), Keanu Reeves’ John Wick (2014) and…well, the International Movie Database has compiled this rundown of what it says are the 65 best hit-man/assassin films. It doesn’t say how many such motion pictures have been made, but it’s far more than that.
Mystery and thriller novelists have contributed their own genius to this subgenre. Consider, for instance, Thomas Perry’s The Butcher’s Boy (1982), Jeffery Deaver’s The Coffin Dancer (1998), Don Winslow’s The Winter of Frankie Machine (2006), David Baldacci’s The Hit (2013), Adam Sternbergh Shovel Ready (2014) and Jo Nesbø’s Blood on Snow (2015). Lawrence Block may be best known for his books about Matthew Scudder, an alcoholic ex-cop–turned–New York City private eye, but he’s also the creator of John Keller, described by The Thrilling Detective Web Site as “an affable loner, a nice, easy-going kinda guy, with steady hands, cool nerves and perfectly honed professional skills, going through a bit of a midlife, mid-career crisis, who likes traveling to new places, meeting and getting to know interesting new people, and then killing them.” This stamp-collecting hit man was introduced in Playboy short stories, but has since featured in three novels, the most recent being Hit Me (2013). Meanwhile, Loren D. Estleman, the “father” of Detroit gumshoe Amos Walker, has so far given us five books—including 2005’s Little Black Dress—starring Peter Macklin, an average sort of bloke who happens to take other people’s lives for a living. And let’s not overlook Scottish writer Malcolm Mackay, whose trilogy of books about Glasgow-based hit man Calum Maclean (among them last year’s The Sudden Arrival of Violence) have won him international acclaim, though those yarns aren’t yet published in the States.
Older than any of those last three series, however, is one cooked up 40 years ago by the prolific Max Allan Collins. Somehow, in between penning his historical adventures for Chicago shamus Nate Heller, his posthumous collaborations with Mickey Spillane and assorted other demanding works, he’s managed to produce 11 books about Quarry (no first name—and Quarry isn’t even his real surname), a divorced Vietnam vet who brought his Marines-trained skill as a sniper stateside.
Collins introduced his inscrutable assassin in 1976’s The Broker (since re-issued simply as Quarry). Between then and the late ’80s, he published four sequels and developed a genuine attachment with his protagonist. “[N]ext to Heller,” he told me in a 1999 interview, “that character is my most innovative.” Yet after 1987’s Primary Target (aka Quarry’s Vote), he seemed to put his hit man out to pasture. That all changed in 2006, when paperback publisher Hard Case Crime agreed to revive Quarry in The Last Quarry, a story that found him retired but nonetheless being engaged by a media magnate to snuff out a comely librarian, only to fall for his prey and begin questioning his lucrative assignment. Collins followed that up with The First Quarry (2008), Quarry in the Middle (2009), Quarry’s Ex (2011), The Wrong Quarry (2013) and the new Quarry’s Choice, which ranks as one of the best entries in this series.
In an April 2014 column for The New York Times, Malcolm Mackay wrote about a study of real-life hired killers that broke them down into three classifications: the dilettante (“typically a desperate man and, though older than the typical novice, is often no more experienced. Driven by a need for money, he accepts a role he isn’t fit to play.”); the journeyman (“an old pro…He probably has organized-crime connections.”); and the master (still a mystery to researchers, since such individuals are successful enough not to be found, much less interviewed). Quarry definitely fits into that final group—a virtual ghost of a man who roams the United States incognito, taking on jobs brought to him, mostly, by the Broker, a big, handsomely tailored and prematurely white-haired “agent” of sorts, who initially approached him after Quarry killed his cheating spouse’s garage-mechanic lover. Quarry likes the money he’s paid, and he’s overcome any ethical objections he ever had to his labors. As he explains in The First Quarry:
I had learned to kill in the jungle of Vietnam and figured I could kill in the zoo of America just as easily. When you take somebody out with a sniper scope, though, or you return fire in a rice paddy fire fight, that’s self-defense, even if a sniper represents a preemptive kind of self-defense.
A professional killer taking out a target isn’t self-defense, obviously; but I didn’t figure killing somebody who was already dead was anything I couldn’t live with. Because anybody that somebody else had decided needed to be killed was already dead, at least when that somebody was powerful enough and determined enough to go the extra mile and hire a killer.
Later in Collins’ series, Quarry modifies his intentions. He turns to tracking down other hit men, identifying their targets and then hiring himself out to permanently remove those killers before they can complete their bloody chores. Not that such behavior can be considered any more socially acceptable than contract assassinations.
And that’s been the author’s real challenge with this series: making readers relate to a character who must be, at heart, rather heartless. He accomplishes that by giving these yarns a first-person viewpoint, writing from inside Quarry’s noggin, showing us that his protagonist—caustic, profane, irritated, aroused and amused in almost equal measure—is more complicated than the mechanisms of the guns he packs along. Quarry can be brutal and callous when necessary, and sexist in the extreme, but he also shares with us the names of the cheap paperbacks he reads and his opinions on the road food he must stomach and the eccentrics he encounters during his lethal peregrinations. He maintains a detachment from his professional endeavors, but he isn’t totally bereft of humanness.
The Quarry novels bounce back and forth through the late 20th century. Quarry’s Choice takes place in the spring of 1972. Following an unsuccessful attempt on the Broker’s life, he dispatches his man Quarry to Biloxi, Mississippi, the corrupt base of operations for Jack Killian, a sadistic proprietor of “striptease clubs, shabby motels and sleazy bars,” who wants to expand his empire. It seems Killian had, through his business partner, engaged the Broker’s services now and then; but Killian has lately decided to “handle all necessary liquidations ‘within house,’ ” and the Broker thinks he’s put a hit on him just to make sure those previous contract kills remain secret.
Quarry is the proverbial fish out of water in the poverty-ridden, kudzu-heavy and ostensibly polite Deep South. Fortunately for him—and for us, the readers—he’s given a local escort, a 19-year-old stripper/hooker named Luann Lloyd. To get close to his target, Killian, Quarry wins a job as his bodyguard, It’s a position that will compel Quarry to commit extracurricular violence, but that’s OK with him, so long as it also wins him Killian’s trust and knowledge of his habits. And it does pay off, when he’s able finally to get Killian alone. But as things turns out, Quarry’s mission is knottier than he’d imagined. Luann, with her honey-blond hair, manufactured bust and hot-pink hot pants, is nowhere near as dumb or shallow as she appears, and after spending so much time with her, Quarry isn’t unwilling to tackle a little job for her on the side—especially since Luann has now learned a bit too much about him for his own good.
Quarry’s Choice reads like one of those pulpish Gold Medal paperback thrillers of the 1950s or ’60s, densely plotted and dynamically paced, with plenty of nefarious twists, explosive turns and shady characters who live to surprise. (The novel even boasts a cover painting by one of that era’s most notable crime-fiction artists, Robert McGinnis.) Of course, the wordsmiths of yore weren’t as free as Collins is to sketch out sex scenes and pepper their dialogue with colorful expletives. But this author makes it all go down smooth as a mint julep, thanks to his humorous storytelling touch.
Collins once told me it would be “tough to keep the novels fresh and varied” if the Quarry series went on too long. Yet he’s now written more of these books since his criminal-hero’s revival in 2006 than he did during the previous century. He even scored a deal recently to bring Quarry to TV screens. Clearly, there’s still a killing to be made in hit-man fiction, and Collins is well-placed to help fill it.