By Max Allan Collins
In the Biloxi heat, a Vietnam vet turned hitman carries out the orders of his fixer, looking for revenge, but finding sex, betrayal, and blackmail in its wake.
Quarry – With nothing left after the war, Quarry fell in with the Broker, a man with an eye for violent talent. Southeast Asia hardened Quarry’s emotions until killing became no big thing, but he still tries to walk the righteous path. But how far does that line bend when his freedom is at stake?
“I guess I’m not your knight in shining armor anymore.”
Woodrow Colton (Mr. Woody) – The head of the Dixie Mafia’s guarded cruelty is one of his worst kept secrets. Running a mini empire of strip clubs and brothels comes with its own set of complications though. Woody’s second in command, Jack Killian, has ambitions stretching beyond the boundaries of the sleepy tourist towns dotting the Gulf and Woody implores The Broker to send someone capable of correcting his problems.
“I am determined to make you feel at home, son… Have you ever been to Biloxi before?”
“Then trust me on this one, son. Take my word, you will thank me to your dying day.”
Luann – A teenage prostitute pretending to be twenty-one, addicted to television and bad decisions. Luann’s instincts have served her well, and she does more than just seduce a reluctant Quarry. She correctly reads her opportunity to blackmail him into action, hopefully ensuring her freedom from a doomed life and his abstention from her execution.
She turned her eyes towards me. Such a light blue. Such a lack of interest.
“If you want sex, I’m okay with it.”
Jack Killian – There’s something honest about Killian’s quick temper and simmering fury, something Quarry, though he’s been assigned to murder the underling, respects. But respect only goes so far when money and blood are on the line.
“Politicians in Biloxi like their bread buttered on both sides, and my knife works both ways.”
Wanda Colton – As Woody and Killian juxtapose the difference between blatant and obfuscated brutality, so do Woody’s wife Wanda and Luann pair the two powers of sexuality, Luann young and energetic, and Wanda calculated and measured. She uses her wiles it to lock Quarry to the same alibi, and ultimately protect her own deceptions.
She got off me and went into the bathroom and washed up and came back and gave me a businesslike look, her head tilted. “So do we have an understandin’?”
“How many men have you killed, Quarry?”
“Here or overseas?”
“Over a hundred.”
“I would guess a sniper gets pretty cold-blooded about it.”
“Killing from a distance can get easy. I’ve don’t close up and personal to. It’s messier.”
The reason Quarry’s Choice works so well is also the very reason it likely only appeals to a limited audience. Mid-seventies post Vietnam settings are rarely this realized however, present but not overwrought in hair styles, and cars, and songs, and even décor. Collins, as usual, does a masterful job of placing his characters in a historical world dictated by his rules and perceptions. In Road to Perdition, his seminal graphic novel of depression era mobsters, the overriding theme of fathers and sons and the protections they can and cannot provide each other swell to the story’s surface, and the Model Ts and the rural county roads help set us in a distinct time with moral and social boundaries. Here too, Collins firmly establishes his setting so as his characters navigate its deadliness, we don’t roll our eyes at another jaded mobster’s wife or a tired teenage stripper turned prostitute.
Quarry’s trip to the Deep South starts with a simple assignment; kill Jack Killian, the second in command of the Dixie Mafia, a small outpost of organized crime on the Gulf. But halfway through his assignment, he’s killed two men, a woman, and he’s only ensured himself a job with both his target and his contractor. It’s here where Quarry’s Choice excels, amid the violence and betrayals of characters unhindered by today’s moral compunctions, characters firmly strapped by the gender roles and off-kilt danger of a scarred nation reeling from its first major military loss. Collins uses the period to not only drive his plot but also to subjugate growing themes within more modern crime fiction. This creates a wonderfully tight and enjoying read, but does little to expand or test a genre full of similar wonderfully irreverent works.
This is not to say there isn’t a disguised modernity here. On the contrary, the empowered women, Luann, the blackmailing little nymph wrapping Quarry around her finger, or Wanda, the sophisticated but sad empress, earn their keep among the bloody and testosterone filled pages. But the subtly of their power plays coupled with their limited page time (in Wanda’s case), may lead to an earlier exit for some of the less initiated.
Quarry’s Choice works because of all of the reasons pulp/crime fiction fans love. That this may be a barrier to others shouldn’t be a roadblock to its enjoyment. At under 300 pages, this swift and at times extremely witty novel is a breezy read on a hot summer day, enjoying Quarry fighting his way in and out of trouble while others are setting him up in their sights.
A hired professional killer teeters on the edge of moral corruption and must try to stem the loss of his humanity against a backdrop of deceit and corruption.
“If you ask me, every man, at every moment of his life, whatever he does, should be ready to face death.”
“I like her. She’s good for me. Asks no questions, has no expectations. No idea what goes on in her head. Suits me just fine.”
“Are you telling me you whacked this guy before you read his damn notes? Before you even knew he was a cop?!”
“You were right. It wasn’t easy.”
“If you really think about it, we’re all murderers one way or another. Any life, whatever it is, requires a kind of permanent violence to take its place in the world; it can only blossom at the expense of other living things.”
Any story of a professional hitman is a sexy one. Indeed, on a boring plane ride out of South America and back to civilization, The Killer and one of his few associates, Mariano, discuss the assassin’s place in pop culture. Mariano, Godson to a cartel kingpin, laments the treatment of drug dealers in movie culture. They are the dirtbags, he says, and it’s the hitmen the masses go wide eyed for. The Killer’s response? The difference between real life and movies is that in real life, the hitmen don’t always die in the end.
It’s an interesting revelation and one which defines a book that attempts at all times to circumvent the preconceived notions of a genre replete with every size and shape of hired professional murderers. This is not a hitman who plays by a set of rules he never deviates from. Nor is he someone who won’t target innocents, or who cares about the well being of non-combatants. Expedition of the job is of utmost importance, second only to survival. At various points, the easiest and smartest way out of a situation, be it to prevent getting caught or simply helping a cover story, is the route taken. If a hit needs to be made an example of, he’s shot in the bed with his lover, and she is off’ed too, because, well, witnesses. In the climax of the first issue, The Killer attempts to snipe a target, and his scope is repeatedly filled by obstacles: body guards, wives, friends, innocents on the street. He shoots his way through all of them to resolve his prey.
“Man’s history is just an endless list of atrocities and we’re not even through with it.”
The difficult part for the writer in all of this, and one that Matz handles with startling ease, is making the reader actually care what happens to this deplorable man. To open, we find a professional unraveling, unable to decipher friend from foe, no longer capable, or willing, to make any decision that doesn’t directly relate to his survival and finishing a job. Indeed it is the main character’s attempt at healing, of unwinding and resetting, that draws the reader further into his mind and ultimately, forces the most basic question of the book to surface. Do we hate this man for his depravity, or can we empathize with his feelings if not his actions?
The Killer opines about conquistadors and European aggressors and about the subjugation of the Native Americans and about crocodiles. Killers, all of them. Loners. Survivors. Being well learned and self aware gives him the vision to see his kind has existed from before recorded history and will live on after all of the other sheep have been led to the slaughter.
“Sometimes I think it’d be fun to shoot them all. But that’d be dumb. I mean, where’s the profit? Shit. I’m losing it again.”
Though this book is up to four collections long, I encourage you to take it a little at a time, as each volume provides a glimpse into the building up or breaking down of The Killer’s mental state. His girlfriend, whom initially seems like nothing more than a secondary character bound to be shot in the wrong firefight, actually serves a much greater role. She becomes us, the lucid and very curious side of the regular person who is both intrigued and at times frightened by the implications of this man’s very existence. Through her eyes, the eyes of his protégé Mariano, and other friends and enemies, the various collections of this book gain their distinct identities and should be handled as wonderfully contained yarns, yet episodic in nature.
“In this job, the toughest part is the loneliness. You can meet people but you can never get too close … But I don’t know how different it is from regular people’s lives.”
Though it comes as no surprise, the art compliments the story’s erratic state of mind. Paris is at all times lovingly detailed as only someone with intimate knowledge of its side streets and byways, or with meticulous care for his craft, could possible execute. I suspect Luc Jacamon has ample stock in both. Particularly striking are his lighting choices, monochromatic pallets help understate quiet moments and highlight the few times love and lust supersede the heavy dose of death this book brokers in.
Ultimately do we cheer for this man to succeed, or do we quietly hope for a dramatic downfall? Matz makes sure neither of those questions is easy to address, and yet both are easy to answer. Yes and yes. We want to see more, we want him to avenge his double crosses, to sniff out the traps, and similarly, in some way, we hope he gets his in the end. Because if he does, we get to go to bed at night thinking justice trumps all, and we have nothing to do with any of the horrible things we’ve all endorsed just by living and surviving.
“There is a God for everyone. There is a fair reward and the same punishment for all, paradise and hell.”
J. J. Sinisi
Blog Author Bios:
J. J. Sinisi started TDC and is a professional out of New York but spends what little free time he has strolling dark alleyways creating and reviewing crime fiction. His work has appeared at Spelk Fiction, Yellow Mama, Spinetingler Mag, Near to the Knuckle, Dead Guns Press, All Due Respect, Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, The Flash Fiction Offensive and others.