As far as writing goes, Max Allan Collins has had a successful career. He has had scores of novels published, has had his work adapted into films, like Road To Perdition, and has worked on some high-profile comic books/strips, such as Dick Tracy and Batman. Though a significant portion of his work concerns novelizations of films and televisions series, he has established himself as a writer through his own narratives and characters, most notably his Quarry series. I had not heard of Collins, but he has recently published titles through Hard Case Crime, a publisher that re-issues pulp-era detective novels and crime fiction, whilst also publishing original works written in the spirit of the pulp-era classics. Two of his most recent novels, The First Quarry and The Last Quarry, serve to bookend the career of the title character of the series, a Vietnam veteran turned hit man who goes by the name Quarry. The premise sounds good on paper, but the execution of the two novels leaves a lot to be desired. The plots, though at times entertaining, are frequently unoriginal, predictable, contrived, and melodramatic, while the characters lack depth, and though the works have elements of metafiction woven throughout, in The First Quarry most especially, the execution of this literary tool comes across as either unintentionally sloppy writing or self-congratulatory praise. There are also some issues with the use of homophobic and racial slurs. Though part of the character development, the weight of these words drags the text down and does not seem to offer much in the way of character development.
For whatever flaws the novels have, there are elements that work. Collins does a respectable job of integrating conversations about the authentic world, and the performative world. In his monograph Simulacra and Simulation, cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard speaks to how most people are a stand-in for a non-existent ‘real referent’. These referents are constructs we create. Baudrillard essentially argues that the world is not ‘real’ or authentic, but merely an artificial copy of what some imagine reality to be. For Collins, this seeps into his work through his allusions to life imitating art. While on a stake out, Quarry sees a woman wearing a high fury hat, inviting the reader to “thank Dr. Zhivago for this shit” (22). The hats worn in Dr. Zhivago were part of a uniformed style, which speaks to Baudrillard’s concepts creating copies of signs to represent non-existent referents. The style is then copied to the point where the sign becomes a commodity and the replaces the intended meaning of the initial sign. For Collins, the high fur hat is a foolish fashion trend that imitated a film. The film, itself a mass production, serves to popularize certain fashions that have a specific cultural significance which is usurped by the mass production of the hats that are then worn, not to facilitate uniformity in a militaristic sense, but a commodified fashion accessory, subverting the intended sign. The hat, originally created to keep one warm, becomes part of a uniform popular during the Russian revolution, which then becomes a prop in a film, which then becomes an Americanized fashion accessory, a process that changes the meaning of the sign. This subversion of reality happens throughout the novel, but Collins links it to ‘life imitating art’ most overtly in a passage where Quarry imagines several way in which he might kill his target: “Pretty much all of these idiot plans had me shooting the prof multiple times, watching him shake, rattle and roll in Wild Bunch slow motion” (46). This alludes to imitating the action of a film, but Quarry, who is very much in tune with the reality of killing, recognizes that the action in films is not authentic, a similar argument to the one he makes about academics writing about Vietnam when they weren’t there.
Collins also includes an allusion to corporate complicity in what might most frankly be called murder. With the recent news that General Motors knew about defects that have been linked to the deaths of at least thirteen people, it seems odd that corporations who claim to want the same rights as people, are not held to the same criminal standards as people. The recent issues that General Motors has had are not new, however. Ford had a similar issue with the Pinto in the 70’s, where rear-end collisions caused explosions, but Collins refers to an even earlier issue with Corvair, also a General Motors product. According to Quarry, the Corvair was “known to have a few deficiencies, such as leaking oil, impaling its driver on the steering column in collision, sending noxious fumes into the interior, and occasionally blowing up” (67). Surprising, Quarry doesn’t mention the spring-axle suspension, which was the key issue highlighted in Ralph Nader’s famous 1965 publication Unsafe at Any Speed. Though Collins wrote this well before the most recent scandal, reading it in light of recent events articulates that such practices are a pattern of behaviour and not an isolated incident. Collins equates corporate ‘oversight’ this with murder when his protagonist considers killing his target and a student visiting him as both have already been ordered dead, the target by Quarry’s client, and the student by General Motors: “For a moment I considered going over there and snuffing both of them, since they were both dead men, the prof my contracted target and his student a Corvair driver” (67). This over juxtaposition serves to demonstrate how the ‘captains on industry’ share a lot in common with those associated with organized crime.
This rationalization of killing serves are a manner in which to justify Quarry’s career and I assume make him more likable to the reader, the issue is that it simply fails. Quarry justifies his career through two arguments. Quarry argues that he doesn’t “figure killing somebody who was already dead was anything [he] couldn’t live with. Because anybody that somebody else had decided needed to be killed was already dead”. This is akin to a hangman not viewing his killing of a man as murder but as a job. Quarry, therefore, is only the ‘mechanism’ of the death (20). He then goes onto equate killing people in Vietnam with killing people in America: “I had learned to kill in the jungle of Vietnam and figured I could kill in the zoo of America just as easily” (20). This seem like an interesting parallel with some fascinating political implications on the surface, one that at the very least demonstrates the hypocrisy of the American political machine, but it is grossly diluted by Quarry’s example. After killing a man who was sleeping with his wife, Quarry asks why it is alright for him to kill somebody he doesn’t know in Vietnam, but not alright to kill some ‘prick’ he knows deserves it (34). The issues is that Quarry frames adultery as a capital offense and this simply doesn’t wash as reasonable justification for homicide. Quarry doesn’t even know whether or not the man in question knew whether Quarry’s wife was married or not, and as to the woman who committed adultery, there is no mention of her being killed, and she is the one who committed the offense (though a later publication features a narrative structured around Quarry’s ex). This lack of character development runs rampant throughout the novels. Whether it being Quarry making nihilist statements like: “I’d seen plenty of evidence supporting the notion that life and death were meaningless, and God was either nonexistent of uninterested” (136), and then not explaining the context of this statement, or characters like Janet in The Last Quarry, who have a fortune but take a job as a librarian, there simply seems to be a lack of authentic motivation for the actions of many of the characters.
The plotting is also an issue. In The First Quarry, there are elements that are predictable and melodramatic. When, for instance, Quarry sees an attractive woman in the hotel swimming pool, it becomes overtly obvious later that when Quarry must meet an unknown woman and pose as a private investigator, it will be the woman he had earlier been flirting with. At the climax of the novel, melodrama ensues when the wife of the target conveniently knocks on the door of Quarry’s target, who also happens to be her husband, and shoots him before killing herself, all whilst Quarry happens to be hiding around a corner. In The Last Quarry, when a car bomb is used to abruptly kill the love interest, it seems overtly melodramatic, and equally obvious that the women killed is not actually the love interest but the sister of the love interest who goes missing. The narratives of each novel is peppered with such plotting, which breaks the suspension of disbelief.
There are also some issues with the history in The First Quarry. Collins does an excellent job in terms of pulling out relevant pop-culture references for the most part. References to The Jackson Five and The Partridge Family serve to contextualize the novel in 1970, however, other references seem to be a little mixed up. Quarry twice notes that local DJ’s must be in need of a bathroom break when they play ‘long’ songs, in one instance, ‘In A Gada Da Vida’, an Iron Butterfly track that is 17 minutes long, and in another instance when he references ‘Let It Be’, by The Beatles. Though ‘Let It Be’ was released in May of 1970 and was aptly times to be on the radio for Quarry’s narrative, the song is less than 4 minutes long. It was likely ‘Hey Jude’ that Quarry meant to reference, another track from The Beatles and one that is over 7 minutes long. Such details are minutes, and Collins does an excellent job on these peripheral details for the most part, but he also throws in references to bra burning (115), which was actually a myth and didn’t happen. These kind of details, even when researched sufficiently, can serve to be a distraction to the text.
The use of pejorative terms is distracting as well and weighs heavily on the text. In The First Quarry, there are several uses of racial slurs. In some of the instances, it seems to make sense, such as when Quarry is trying to fit in with others who he assumes to be racist, but then when he is speaking alone with Annette, who has shown herself to be a forwarding thinking person, Quarry still uses phrases like ‘spade’. Quarry seems to go to some efforts to absolve himself of racism to the reader in several instances, but at the same time uses the deaths of two men as colour for the basis of a joke about losing his membership to the NAACP, which seems in poor taste. Quarry likewise presents himself as forward thinking when it comes to homosexuality, promoting a ‘live and let live’ mentality, and paying compliments to his ‘gay chef’, but also uses homophobic slurs in his internal dialogue and makes off the cuff jokes about not wanting to know what his gay chef does in his spare time. I understand that when creating certain characters, some traits may not be likable, or an author may want to frame a character as having antiquated views, but if these details are not moving the plot forward of building character, then they are problematic. Noting that two former mob members were also a gay couple is a key plot point in The Last Quarry when one of them goes to guy sanitary napkins, an incongruity that that tips Quarry off about a detail, but the use of homophobic slurs to describe then in an internal dialogue simply weights down the narrative. Likewise, when a mob boss states that Black gang members “are always killing each other”, there is an interesting social observation linked with this as he goes onto say that “They got more factions than the fucking communists” (198). This speaks to how members of oppressed groups often struggle because the multiplicity of voices makes it difficult to unify against the dominant culture, but the productive elements of this rhetoric are weighed down by the unnecessary use of pejorative terms.
The instances of metafiction are perhaps the most interesting parts of the novels outside of the plot, but they seem to be accidentally and inconsistently incorporated, or allow the author to step in and praises himself. In both novels, Quarry frequently steps out of the narrative and speaks directly to the reader, sometimes to chastise the reader, or be curt when explaining why he will not give specific information, and other times encouraging the reader to share a laugh with him. The problem is that there is no rapport with the reader, and such interruptions break the spell of the narrative. These interruptions also occur when Quarry has to explain how his first-person narrative can manage to include dialogue that he would not have been privy to, whether it be hearing conversations because they are loud, or his ability to read lips. The more annoying instances are when Collins uses the metafiction to praise himself. Annette, a character from The First Quarry, is a graduate student in the Iowa’s Writer Workshop, which is a workshop that Collins himself was a member of. The characters make a point of talking how prestigious the workshop is and how only the very best writers can secure a spot in the program. I literally rolled my eyes when I read this. When Quarry is told that his story is so interesting that he should write a book about it (177), I rolled my eyes again. I get it, Collins thinks he’s great. Collins then seems to use the novel as a platform to show off his craft. When Annette says she is “a serious writer doing serious work”, Collins wonders, through Quarry, whether “a serious writer would use the word ‘serious’ twice in the same sentence” (57). Perhaps this is a joke, as Collins actually himself uses the word serious twice in the same sentence in consecutive sentences, but it seems more that he is promoting his superior craftsmanship (way to go Collins, you know enough not to use the same word twice in one sentence). This may be a misreading, but either way, the trick is pulled off ineffectively and serves as a distraction. This metafiction calls further attention to the narrative structure in a scene where Quarry’s target, the English professor, is giving advice to his student. He speaks to the merits of fiction, but Annette notes that “narrators in fiction can be unreliable”, drawing attention to the fact that Quarry himself is unreliable, but the the professor then notes that this occurs in non-fiction as well (106). This is linked to what seems to be an argument against the journalist novel, more aptly called New Journalism. In the process of arguing against New Journalism, Collins, or at least his characters, praise of fiction, a dialogue that frankly reads like the literary version of a territorial pissing. Fiction and New Journalism are both great when executed well and both rubbish when done poorly. Let’s move on. The countless references to other authors also comes across as elitist name dropping and not intertextual references that heighten the text. Though when Annette speaks of being the next Sylvia Plath, I must confess, I did get a bit of a chuckle out of this. Aiming to be the next Sylvia Plath is like saying “I’m going to be the next writer put my head in an oven and turn the gas on with my two children in the next room.” I say this not to knock mental illness and those who suffer from depression, since I suffer from depression myself, but rather to articulate how I find it odd how people aspire to match the success of another person but seemingly fail to take into account the pain that that person lived with and the toll it took on their lives.
When finishing the books, which I had very much been looking forward to, I could not help but feel a little disappointed. I can accept a lack of character development in a crime novel, so long as the plotting is engaging, but when neither is effective, the flaws of each define the work. The dialogue is artificial at best and frequently comes across as though Collins is trying too hard to be clever and is too eager to pat himself on the back when he thinks he has succeeded. While I don’t mind enigmatic and stylized protagonists that have vague and elusive back stories and mysterious motivations, at the very least I expect them to be presented in a way that allows me to suspend my disbelief. The melodrama, predictability, homophobic and racial slurs, and the poorly executed implementation of metafiction serve to take the reader out of the narrative constantly. Hard Case Crime has done a great job packaging the book, and the cover art of each novel is great though I prefer Ken Laager’s cover for The First Quarry to Robert McGinnis‘s cover for The Last Quarry, even if I am a huge fan of McGinnis’s work in general. The overview of the books reads like a great pitch to a Hollywood movie: Vietnam veteran is trained to kill in the jungles of Southeast Asia, but when he returns home, he finds that those who he cared about most have turned their back on him, so he enlists as a paid assassin. Sounds great? Right? Yes, it does, but without fully developing the themes, character and plot, the pitch simply does not work.
Check out my reviews of other Hard Case Crime publications like, such as Little Girl Lost, Songs Of Innocence, Branded Woman, and Murder Is My Business. You may also like my reviews of pulp-era detective fiction such as You Can’t Stop Me, The Name Is Jordan, Stamped For Murder, Pardon My Body and a host of novels by Carter Brown. For updates and new posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.