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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”)
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.
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.