Hard Cases in the Seventies

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I’ve been a big fan of Max Allan Collins ever since I ran across the wonderful Ms. Tree strip he did with Terry Beatty in Eclipse Magazine, back in the day. It helped that I had just discovered Mickey Spillane in a pile of discount paperbacks in a Mt. Hood thrift store a few weeks before (the one bright spot in an otherwise miserable family vacation, which is probably why I remember it so vividly.) So I had been primed for this particular brand of hard-boiled, pedal-to-the-metal crime fiction.

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At any rate, I was sold. I followed Collins from Ms. Tree to Dick Tracy to Johnny Dynamite to Mike Danger, and when I ran out of comics I moved over to his prose novels.

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I worked my way through a number of those and enjoyed them all, but none of them really equaled the sheer excitement of the comics work, particularly Ms. Tree. Certainly Collins is an amazingly versatile writer– he moves from mainstream superhero stuff like Batman to historical fiction to ‘cozy’ mysteries with an ease that defies description. But for me, nothing matched the visceral adrenaline-fueled momentum of the early Ms. Tree stories like “I, For an Eye” and “The Cold Dish.”

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That is, until I came across the Quarry series.

I had known the books were out there, of course. (One of the minor pleasures of following Max Allan Collins’ work in comics is that he usually answers his own mail if the comic has a letter column, and he’s good about letting you know everything he’s up to and where you can find his other books.) But the Quarry series as described– the adventures of a remorseless killer-for-hire– didn’t seem like my kind of thing. I wanted to read about good guys meting out rough justice, not bad guys who got away with bad deeds. And the books themselves, as originally packaged, looked sort of unpleasant.

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Well, of course I judged them by the covers. (I wish I hadn’t, because these editions are highly sought-after collectibles today.)

All of this is by way of explaining why I was so late to the party. I’d kind of filed Quarry away with what I think of as the ‘lesser’ Collins work, on a level with the Nolan books or his licensed CSI novels or something. But then he revived the series for Hard Case Crime and they started sending them to me for review, and Quarry immediately became my favorite Collins thing ever.

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The Quarry books, as far as I’m concerned, are as close as Max Collins gets to channeling the spirit of his inspiration and mentor Mickey Spillane. (Yes, even more than the actual collaborations with Spillane himself that Collins is doing with the remaining Mike Hammer manuscripts Spillane left for him to finish, though those are also not to be missed.)

Collins started the Quarry series in college, as part of his work in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Having attended a few college writing workshops in the seventies myself, I can hardly imagine what his classmates thought of the in-your-face pulp-inspired violence of Quarry… but I’d bet money that Collins feels a certain chuckle at getting the last word every time a royalty check arrives.

The interesting thing about the series is that when he revived the character for Hard Case Crime a few years ago, Collins kept the setting rooted in the seventies. So, as Collins himself points out, what began as a contemporary series of books bouncing off current events has become a historical series written with the benefit of hindsight. This is very apparent in the latest one Hard Case sent me, Quarry In The Black.

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Here’s the blurb: With a controversial presidential election just weeks away, Quarry is hired to carry out a rare political assignment: kill the Reverend Raymond Wesley Lloyd, a passionate Civil Rights crusader and campaigner for the underdog candidate. But when a hate group out of Ferguson, Missouri, turns out to be gunning for the same target, Quarry starts to wonder just who it is he’s working for.

I enjoyed this book enormously, as I have all of the Quarry novels. Most writers who use the first-person narrative to show an unreliable narrator are doing it to get at the idea that the hero is not as good a person as he thinks himself to be… but Quarry usually turns out to be a better person than he should be, given his chosen vocation. It’s just a remarkable tightrope to walk and Collins does it superbly. The fascinating thing about Quarry as a character is that even though he presents himself as a professional killer for whom conscience is a huge inconvenience, nevertheless he still has one. Plus– and this is a big deal for me– the plot is built on an actual fair-play mystery that unfolds with clues and everything. I’m a little bit of a snob about this and I suspect Mr. Collins is too, because he’s really good at doing it. (So was Mickey Spillane, for that matter, and he never gets any credit for that. But plotting a genuine mystery that the reader has to puzzle out while still telling an involving story is damn hard and it should get some recognition.)

The thing that you won’t get from the cover copy is that this is sort of an ‘untold story’ from Quarry’s early years as a hit man. The reason for this, I suspect, is because Collins wanted to have a new book out to tie in to the current Cinemax TV show but he doesn’t want to spoil the ending for the TV people, since the television series is essentially an adaptation of the first novel.

And the TV show itself? How’d that turn out?

Well, it’s an interesting exercise in adaptation. Collins himself has scripted an episode and is listed as an executive producer, so he’s clearly okay with what they’ve done.

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On balance, I think I am too… though it’s very different than the books themselves. The television series is essentially Quarry’s origin story, starting with his arrival home from his time serving in Vietnam.

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The pace is much, much slower than the book. The show slowly walks us through the increasing desperation of Quarry as he discovers how little is left for him here at home; his wife is cheating on him, he is scorned as a baby-killer when people find out he’s a vet, his father holds him in contempt. Door after door is slammed in his face until finally accepting the Broker’s offer of doing a contract killing seems like a reasonable decision. At first this was annoying, because I had my head set for the relentless in-your-face pulp-fiction momentum of the novels and I was wanting to get to the good stuff, but I got over it about two-thirds of the way through the pilot. It’s a slow burn and so it works better when it pays off, and it pays off big. The difference is hard to describe, because if you’re a purist about the books you might have problems. But the nearest I can get to explaining it is that it’s like hearing a new, bluesy arrangement of your favorite rock song. It’s completely different, slowed way down, but still good. (Changing the setting from the generic Midwest of the books specifically to Memphis adds a great deal of atmosphere, as well.)

That said, I still think it’s a bit padded– I daresay that they could have done six episodes instead of eight and not missed a thing– but overall, it works. Partly because when the violence comes it is utterly vicious and unsparing, it’s not glorified in any way. This is not movie-style gun-fu. The killing in Quarry is ugly and sudden and final.

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Another brilliant thing about the show is that the producers chose to keep it set in the seventies… and they are NAILING IT. I’m getting trauma flashbacks just looking at the dingy polyester and the faux wooden paneling and everything else.

And the actors are really selling it. I’ve never heard of any of these folks before but they are uniformly wonderful. Jodi Balfour is magnificent as Mac’s wife Joni, who is clearly in love with her husband even as she’s horrified by what he has become.

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Peter Mullan is positively Satanic as the Broker, and his down-home southern delivery of his lines makes them even more menacing. And Damon Herriman is charismatic, horrifying, and pitiful, all at once, as Quarry’s assigned backup Buddy; a closeted gay man who still lives with his mama but is nevertheless capable of truly terrifying sociopathic evil. (His cheerful craft project of turning a baseball bat into a spiked mace is one of the best throwaway bits in the show. “Whassat for?” “Personal.”)

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But it is Logan Marshall-Green as Quarry himself that carries the show on his back. He doesn’t have that many lines so he has to do most of it with his face and his body language. And he is extraordinary. It’s his potrayal of a Southern guy raised in the macho tradition, trying to figure out just what he owes everyone in a changing world, that makes the show such a time portal to the seventies; much more than the costumes or hairstyles or set dressing, though those things are all dead-on. Watching his face as he has to deal with each new dilemma, seeing his portrayal of a man slowly being hollowed out by events that he has no control over, is harrowing.

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Even someone familiar with the books who has a good idea of where this is all going will be hooked. Normally I’m not fond of long-form origin stories, but this one’s the exception. I can’t recommend the show strongly enough. You can see trailers and so on here.

And the books have my strongest recommendation as well, though they are a very different animal. Whether you prefer the slow bluesy version from Cinemax or the fast hard-rock version of the novels is up to you, but they’re both remarkably well-done examples of the crime genre.

Back next week with something cool.

5 Comments

  1. tomfitz1

    I’ve been watching the series and enjoying it, ever since Banshee went off the air, I needed another hard-boiled series.

    Quarry definitely fills that bill.

    Wouldn’t mind reading the Quarry series, if my local libraries had the whole set. (they don’t 🙁 )

    1. The Quarry books are self-contained and you can jump in pretty much anywhere. (I did; I started with the newer ones Hard Case sent to me for review and have been playing catch-up since.) The only one that will spoil the Cinemax show for you is the first one, and since the show wraps this week you only have a few days to go, if you are as hooked on the series as I am.

      I mention this only because authors die a little inside every time a reader walks away because they can’t start at the beginning of a series, or they can’t get the set, or other similar reasons. It’s a Catch-22 that makes doing a series problematic; you give readers more of what they are asking for, but then you lose casual readers who might get caught by the cover copy until they find out it’s the fourth of nine, or something. This is largely a tic among comics fans, I’ve noticed, because I lean that way myself. But it’s only because we’ve been trained for years by Marvel and DC that a series continuity is not a burden to be assumed lightly. But mostly, especially in the non-SF/fantasy world, it’s not a thing. You can pick up Louis L’Amour’s Sackett books at any point. Same with Ian Fleming’s James Bond, or Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, or even Tom Clancy’s books about Jack Ryan (though those became unreadable for me somewhere around RAINBOW SIX for other reasons, continuity wasn’t one of them.) Collins is certainly smart enough to know that a series of mysteries is not the same thing as a single narrative with chapters. His tightest continuity, I think, is Nathan Heller, and even those are largely self-contained. The rule I was always taught is that you can reward readers who know things but you never PUNISH them for not being caught up. Collins certainly plays by that rule.

      1. Jeff Nettleton

        Really? I found Clancy practically unreadable with Red Storm Rising; definitely by Cardinal of the Kremlin. After Hunt for Red October, everything seemed padded, the characters more caricature (especially in Cardinal) and his situations more ludicrous. The movies actually improved things, for me. It didn’t help that I was a naval officer when I read his stuff and found that his vaunted technology couldn’t work for more than 5 minutes, without breaking, giving me headaches while I hunted down the parts to get it fixed. I used to laugh hysterically when he was trotted out by news channels as a military expert.

        I never quite gotten into the hard boiled world. I’ve tried Spillane; but, it wasn’t my cup of tea, even though I spent my teen years reading Mack Bolan and friends. I read a bit of Hamemtt; but never cracked Chandler, nor tried Collins’ prose. I did enjoy what I read of Ms Tree (mostly the DC Quarterlies). For some reason, I seem to prefer mystery fiction on the screen than as reading material. I guess it’s because I always want to find the solution and can’t resist jumping to the end. With tv and film, I get caught up more in the drama and character.

  2. Mark Hopper

    I have to say I’ve been pretty disappointed by the tv series so far. I’ve read most of the books(missed the last couple) and I really liked the set-up in the books. So far to me the tv series seems like it’s taking two steps back with every change they make.

    The cast is good but there’s a glaring problem. Not the actor’s fault, he’s doing a good job playing the character as written, but the main actor as Quarry is badly cast, at least physically. That knot in his forehead should disqualify him from the criminal line of work in a second. It’s so distinctive that anybody could spot him from a lineup.

    I know this because was watching the movie Snowden and spotted this same actor the second he showed up in that, even though he otherwise looks completely different in that movie and is in the movie for perhaps a minute. Collins says in every single novel that Quarry is nondescript, which is something you’d want in an anonymous hitman. Any witnesses in the tv show can just say “Hey it’s a guy with a big knot in his forehead.” It wouldn’t take long for the cops to find this guy.

    Also, the characterization of Quarry in the tv show is far, far removed from the book version. Maybe it’s because it’s an origin story and he’ll change over the course of the series, but TV Quarry being a PTSD-ridden mumbly drunk is almost the OPPOSITE of how he’s described in the books. Quarry does have a sense of honor in the books but he’s mostly written as a cold-hearted sociopath who doesn’t drink because it’d dull his senses.

    Which is fine, the show can go it’s own direction. But book Quarry was also always the most competent person in the story. He’s always one or two steps ahead of everyone else, and the way the other characters treat him(the ones who know who he is) reflects that. TV Quarry is borderline incompetent but the supporting characters talk about him like he’s a badass. Carl, a bumbling idiot in the first book, is more competent in the TV show than Quarry is. Why does the Broker need TV Quarry? Carl’s saved Quarry multiple times. TV Carl is like the Terminator. Just send him!

    The setting change is less of an issue but still disappointing to me. Collins has said part of his intent with the Quarry series was to show that you can write a crime series not set in the traditional locales like New York, Chicago, LA etc. So he set it in the mid-west, which makes for an interesting and unique setting. The TV show changing the setting to the South makes it seem a little less interesting to me. I’ve seen the Dixie Mafia bit many times before.

    I’m sure they had their reasons, whether it be tax incentives, better visuals, or frankly just because they wanted to shoehorn political issues into the storyline(and IMO they do feel shoehorned in). Why was there a lengthy subplot about school integration in a show about a hitman?!

    But again, I don’t expect the tv series to be a literal adaptation of the books(though I would have enjoyed that more). I just wanted to see in the tv series what I saw in the books, and I don’t see that. The books to me were about an ice cold professional encountering a problem during a job and figuring a way out using his wits. So far the tv series is a meandering story about a reluctant drunk guy being recruited to be an assassin for nebulous reasons, who ambles around confused arguing with his wife and who gets his ass saved at the last minute by the people who recruited him.

    If not for the name of the show, the character of the Broker, and the scene with the car jack in the garage this show could almost be an original work. And if you’re not going to actually adapt the books, why even call it Quarry?

  3. Edo Bosnar

    “…authors die a little inside every time a reader walks away because they can’t start at the beginning of a series…”
    Oh, man. I must have killed little pieces of so many authors over the course of my life. And yes, I’m certain my comics reading habits conditioned that response.

    I love Collins’ work, ever since you turned me on to it; interestingly, though, to date I’ve only read very little of his comics work, so I’ve only read his novelization of Ms. Tree published by Hard Case but none of the comics (liked that novel, though). Also – and I know you’d probably consider them ‘cozy’ or ‘light’ – but I thoroughly enjoyed his Jack and Maggie Starr comics mystery trilogy.
    Anyway, my copy of the first Quarry novel arrived about a week ago, and I’m going to try to get around to reading it soon (i.e., I moved it close to the top of my shelf of shame).

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