By the time we get to the 1970’s, there’s been a real change in the character of tough guy American fiction. In the immediate post-Second World War period there was still a curious, old school morality to the genre. Yes, there may have been murders, beatings, rape and general mayhem, but there was still a pretty clear binary sense of who was good and who was bad. Mike Hammer may do all types of things to get at his prey, but he is still a good guy and the bad guy (or bad gal, it’s nearly always a woman) is an insane, degenerate killer – or worse, a communist. A Jim Thompson hero may be somewhat morally fluid and do some dreadful things, but he will generally meet his comeuppance. These may be hard and brutal worlds, but they are hard and brutal worlds with certain fixed rules.
Maybe it was Vietnam which changed all that. Maybe it was the release of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. Maybe it was Richard Stark’s creation of Parker. Maybe it was Lee Marvin playing his version of Parker in POINT BLANK. Whatever it was, by the time we get to the 1970’s that moral ambiguity is entrenched. No longer do we have the killers in one corner, and the bad guys in the other trying to stop them. Instead, whose corner is whose is now distinctly blurred. The killers might just be our good guys now; the ruthless criminals might be the ones we root for. After all they may call him ‘Good’ in the title of the spaghetti western, but the evidence of his goodness isn’t particularly present on the screen. The world has moved on, the old orders have been shattered.
And that brings us to QUARRY, which is 1970’s tough guy fiction deluxe – hard-boiled for so long it must have needed a pressure-cooker. The hitman good-guy who (much like Lee Marvin in a different tough guy thriller, THE KILLER) is trying to solve who was behind the murder he himself has just committed. The hitman as the hero is not the only sign the world has changed though. Quarry initially has a gay working partner, one who is treated as a serious criminal and not like a camp caricature (although that doesn’t stop the book having something of a homophobic streak). A former Playboy bunny is now a respectable and resourceful businesswoman, rather than shamed or a disposable piece of fluff; whilst such is the nature of pornography on our society that Quarry observes it – both gay and straight – in a local cab stand. It’s no longer a dreadful sin one of General Sherwood’s daughters would be blackmailed over. Or maybe she still would. It’s the one constant from the older model: that the rich are super ruthless and super unpleasant and will do basically anything to survive. The world may change, moral certainties may change, but those with inherited wealth will always be bastards.
It’s possible here to strip away the tough guy stuff and find a deeply capitalist and classist book here. This is a story about the little guy, the self-made man who has carved a niche out in the world doing the jobs that no one wants to do. He has a manager but is really his own boss, earning enough to get by and have a nice quiet life. And his problems really only begin when he encounters those who were born with a silver-spoon in their mouths, who have never had to work and have no respect for it the way he does. And it’s up to this self-made man to rub these blue bloods noses in it just a little, even as his world is torn apart.
QUARRY is a cracking example of 1970’s noir, full of cross and double-cross, and where the men are ruthless bastards, the women are voluptuous stunners with smart mouths, and the treacherous scum deserve everything that comes to them.
My debut novel, THE WANNABES – which has been out of print for a little while – is now available for free. A supernatural thriller of beautiful actresses and deadly ambition in London town, it’s well worth your time. You can get your copy here!