Max Allan Collins keeps playing Can You Top This with his Quarry books and damned if he doesn't keep on winning. Quarry's Choice is remarkable for at least three reasons.
First, it is by far the longest and most ambitious novel in the series.
Second, it takes him to an unfamiliar land, the underbelly of the Deep South.
Three, it combines more violence and more tenderness than one has seen before in Quarry. And that, I know, is saying something.
The set-up goes this way. The Broker hires Quarry to put the hit on a man named Jack Killian. Seems that Killian is trying to take over the Strip in the town in all its underworld aspects, everything from hookers, drugs and kinky hotels. In the process he is spreading his resources to areas of the state run by others. This is making the Broker's friend Woodrow Colton unhappy. Colton owns a good share of the Biloxi Strip (part and parcel of the "Dixie Mafia") which he shares with Killian. Will Killian come after him? It is best for all concerned, both the Broker and Colton ("Woody") agree if Killian is killed. The Strip was quiet--the law was paid off and no one was hassled.Biloxi is a tourist attraction and Killian's violence will not only scare tourists away but also begin to attract attention from the FBI.
The Broker wants Quarry to infiltrate Killian's gang as a bodyguard. He thinks this will be the only way Quarry will have chance to kill him. Unlike the good ole boy Woody, Killian comes from a wealthy family of social standing and is a brilliant, cunning sociopath.
I mentioned that this is the most ambitious Quarry novel. I also mentioned that he takes us to the Deep South. Collins give us a detailed look at life in the Dixie Mafia and its environs. His descriptions of the various strip clubs, hotels, gambling casinos and mob hangouts give the word seediness new meaning. Presumably there are good and decent people in Biloxi but they don't appear anywhere in this novel.
The violence here is stunning and memorable. The lady with her ball peen hammer (she loves to crush skulls) is out of a horror movie. Collins knows that less is more so he gives us short but believable images of sudden and grisly death.
As for the tenderness...There are in each Quarry novel moments when Collins tries to reassure his readers (and Quarry) that the hit man kills not for pleasure but for money. The same with women. Quarry does his share of fuck fucking but there are always moments when Quarry begins to respond to the woman as a person and not just a hand job machine. Here we have little Lolita, a barely-legal prostitute that Woody "gives" Quarry. She appears through a good deal of the book and is one of the sweetest, saddest most appealing characters Collins has ever created. Quarry's Choice is Quarry's masterpiece, a savage, twist-rich, sexy, wry and relentless tale of bad guys and even much worse bad guys.
I've been reading Quarry novels since the early 1970s when they first appeared and I haven't read a bad one yet. Max Allan Collins has created a protagonist and a milieu that he has mastered. And unlike most series this one gets better as it ages.
At this point in his career--and it is a career make no mistake--Quarry now kills killers who've been hired to murder Quarry's clients. Approach a client, convince him he's in mortal danger and bingo you're on the payroll.
This is a particularly rich episode because of the detail Collins brings to the worlds of antiques and beauty pageants. The antique dealer and his partner are the killers and the beauty pageant maestro is a small town dance school instructor. Some years ago said instructor being suspected of murdering an heiress who also happened to be in one of his pageants. Quarry hires on to protect him.
I hate throwing in that overused (and often pretentious) word "subtext" but after all these Quarry books I've come to realize that for all his murderous ways and sexual conquests he is never in danger of becoming a cardboard cut out because Collins, from the git go, has made him an unhappy and restless figure.
In the books where he takes to his Wisconsin eyrie we see Quarry at rest and with something resembling peace of mind. Not only is the sex better here but it often blossoms into a real relationship with Quarry cutting through his own (sometime) psychological confusion and defenses and beginning to love one of his many women. I can't think of another hit man writer who would take a risk like that.
THE WRONG QUARRY is a special treat because Collins gets one of the great grand sociological targets of all time to sack--the beauty pageant. Collins goes after it with machete wit.
Another bonus here is the mystery at the center of the dance instructor's life. The long ago dead heiress. On top of all the excitement, Collins gives the readers an impeccably handled mystery.