Shamus Award-winning author, screenwriter, filmmaker and more, Max Allan Collins -- perhaps best known as the man behind "Road To Perdition" -- has been pretty busy of late. His book “Black Hats” recently began its journey to the big screen with Harrison Ford signing on to take a lead role, and this fall finds Collins delivering two more books, "The Consummata" and "Quarry's Ex," both via the excellent pulp fiction publishing house Hard Case Crime. And they both arrive with a curious back story. "The Consummata" is actually an unfinished Mickey Spillane novel and a sequel that Collins was tasked with finishing, while "Quarry's Ex" is a return to franchise and character that he ended. Yet, despite the seeming limitations imposed on the writer, in both cases, he manages to deliver solid pulp with enough intrigue, sex and grit to keep page-turners happy.
If everything had gone according to plan, Morgan The Raider would now be as recognized a pop culture figure as James Bond, but alas, that didn't happen. Created by Mickey Spillane, Morgan is a globe trotting, hard knockin' CIA agent and it was developed to be his next major character outside of Mike Hammer. However, when the 1970 film adaptation tanked, Spillane didn't bother finishing the sequel "The Consummata" that he started writing. Enter Collins, who with the blessing of the Spillane estate has been something of a caretaker of the late writer's works, and has already brought a handful of unfinished manuscripts over the finish line, and once again he picks up the pen for this second adventure with Morgan.
The story starts off with a bang, with Morgan on the run from the CIA, having just broken out of jail and racing through the Cuban community of Miami. Accused of stealing $40 million dollars and killing his colleagues, he's already got a lot of explaining to do, but that doesn't stop him from taking on another assignment. Hidden from the authorities by a couple of Cuban revolutionary exiles, he agrees to help them recover $75,000 that was taken from them by a double agent, Jaimie Helaquez. His quest takes him to a high priced brothel where it turns out Jaimie had a predilection for some pretty extreme S&M, and as the bodies begin to stack up, it turns out the mysterious bondage mistress only known as The Consummata, may be his only ticket to finding Jaimie and recovering the cash.
Collins paints a neon lit, 1970s Miami with ease, where the power players enjoy sex as much as they enjoy money. Morgan is a typically alpha male hero, giving off the type of hormones that make comely young prostitutes eager to sleep with him for no charge. And his confident swagger make his adventures easy and fun to play along with. But not everything works. The narrative is interrupted throughout by Morgan's internal monologue, a device which is distracting and adds little dimension to either the character or the story. And while there is a good amount of sexual imagery and encounters throughout, it's somewhat tame for a storyline that has a mythical S&M mistress at the heart of it. Pulp writing certainly has no shortage of sex, but this seemed like a missed opportunity to truly give it a fresh dimension, instead of treating the S&M play as an oddball kink that further defines Helaquez's evil bent. However, with some memorable side players -- a helpful bellhop delivers some wit while brothel madam Bunny and working girl Gaita drive up the sexual quotient -- quick bursts of action, and a colorful Floridian setting, "The Consummata" is a pleasurable diversion (even if the mystery itself is not nearly as interesting as it could be).
Meanwhile, "Quarry's Ex" is a different sort of animal. Yes, we have another alpha male in Max Quarry, an assassin for hire, but he's not quite as gregarious as Morgan. Collins' creation is cold, methodical almost emotionless hitman, who approaches his work with a professional cool and executes it with seamless precision. But his latest adventure -- fitting in the timeline established between “The Broker,” published in 1976 and “The Last Quarry” in 2008 -- finds his work complicated by the involvement of his ex-girlfriend Joni, who upon his return from the Vietnam wound up both betraying him and breaking his heart. Quarry soon after entered the murder-for-hire business and never looked back, and was never forced to, until he finds himself in the desert squaring away a job in which Joni is a peripheral player. Or is she?
Collins -- as the director of a couple indies “Mommy” and its sequel “Mommy’s Day” -- places the story on the set of a low budget indie flick and has some (somewhat cliché) fun with it. The movie is backed by a mobster, the leading man is in the closet, the lead actress eager to be liked dispenses blowjobs like candy, and the behind the camera workers are mostly some dumb as doorpost bikers, and with Quarry going undercover as a publicist on the production, Collins clearly enjoys painting the smarmy world of shoestring indie filmmaking. At least as it was in the early '80s. But like "The Consummata," it's the setting that shines, with Boot Heel, Nevada serving as an appropriately low rent, even more depressing version of Las Vegas. Bereft of the spectacle of Sin City, Boot Heel is all vice and tacky decorations, and Collins truly captures the smoke infused, grimy casinos and restaurants of the era. And again like "The Consummata," the mystery itself is not nearly as memorable as the characters themselves who truly keep the story moving right along.
Fans of pulp will certainly find much to enjoy in both books. Collins writing is appropriately crisp and brisk, with an economy that doesn't sacrifice creating an evocative world for these stories. The violence is fast, sharp and brutal and the sex is actually sexy, without being crude or overtly graphic (though his overuse of the world "delta" does become a bit much). "The Consummata" and "Quarry's Ex" are both solid genre entries, and though you'll never mistake them for the elevating works of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain or Jim Thompson, these punchy books deliver on their promise. Both books: [B]
"The Consummata" and "Quarry's Ex" are in book stores now.