The latest in Max Allan Collins’ Quarry series, The Wrong Quarry (Hard Case Crime) takes the writer’s hard-nosed hero back to the early eighties where he is still free-lancing as a hitman’s hitman. Working from a file taken from his late unlamented employer, the Broker, Quarry has been following other hired killers to determine their latest assignment and offer to remove the potential victim’s threat for a fee. His latest such endeavor places him in a rustic Missouri town, Stockwell, where a flitty flaming dance instructor named Roger Vale appears to be the target. Vale is suspected of being complicit in the unsolved disappearance of Candace Stockwell, daughter of the town’s moneyed family, and someone in the family is most likely the one responsible for the pair of killers driving into the tourist town.
Quarry’s task turns out to be two-fold: stop the twosome (an innocuous seeming antiques dealer and a sadistic former Army medic) and learn who has hired them. He has no interest in finding out what actually happened to the missing girl, though we, of course, know that he will learn this too during the course of the book. Along the way we meet a variety of small-town types: among them, Jenny Stockwell, the blowsy “black sheep of the biggest family in town;” and Mustang Sally, a too-worldly student of Vale’s reminiscent of the crazy little sister from a Raymond Chandler novel. Of course, our hero gets involved with these dangerous dames.
Collins’ forte is in writing crime novels set in period, and The Wrong Quarry captures the early eighties scene beautifully, right down to the cosmetic fakery that the bad girl Jenny has bought to keep herself still on the market. He even includes a joking reference to an obscure 1983 game show, Hitman, that I had to look up online. Quarry’s voice remains engagingly no-nonsense, and his cynical eye crisply captures Collins’ Midwestern milieu along with the tale’s pulpish bursts of matter-of-fact violence. Though our hitman quasi-hero “retired” back in 2006 with The Last Quarry, Collins has smartly brought him back in four prequels – for which we hard-boiled addicts can only be grateful.