The Search Artist interview with Max Allan Collins
Hey Hip Readers, Max Allan Collins has a new book, Quarry's Climax out today from Hard Case Crime and I was fortunate enough to interview him. He's a titan in the crime fiction genre. He wrote the comic book that became Road to Perdition. He worked with Mickey Spillane. Let that sink in. The man who wrote the Mike Hammer stories-yeah-Max was there. Besides all that, he has been at work since the 1970's. He's crafted Quarry and Heller two kick ass lead characters besides a veritable mountain of other titles. He's written movies, television, comics, all of it. What a man! Dig in folks.
ADAM HILL- Quarry, the character, as originally written is from the Midwest but the book Quarry’s Climax takes him to Memphis. You mentioned in the Author’s Note this is a nod to the TV show Quarry on Cinemax. I think where a character is from can say a-lot about them. What do you think the Memphis angle added for the show’s version of the character?
Max Allan Collins-The truth is the Memphis setting – most of the filming was done in Louisiana – was a cost-saving effort. This happens a lot – which state has tax credits available will often determine where it’s shot. In our case, the Memphis setting – and some filming was done there – gave a richness to the series that my more purposely bland Midwestern setting lacks. The visuals, the music, the Southern flavor, was all positive and didn’t really take away from my character.
AH-Do you feel like you write Quarry different now in 2017 than you did at the time you first wrote his story back in the 1970’s? In what ways do you think it’s you changing or in what ways do you think it’s the world changing?
MAC-I write better now. There’s a purity and integrity to the first novel, because it’s the first novel. But the dark humor – always an aspect – has sharpened and deepened. Ironically, I almost didn’t mind in the mid-‘70s when the book series was dropped by the publisher, because I thought the dark comedy was getting out of hand. Now I know how to modulate it. Also, Quarry himself is funnier.
AH-I think the key thing you were trying to get at was the humanity of the troops. There were not good options for them returning home. The road of becoming a contract killer was a strong temptation. The purpose of Quarry was to give some humanity to men who were asked to do horrible things. Do you remember how people reacted to the character Quarry differently in the Vietnam era when the books came out than they do now?
MAC-Quarry was reflection of the times I lived through, and specifically reflected the experiences of one Marine friend of mine, who always came and stayed with me on his stateside leaves. I saw the changes in him, and the attitudes of people who encountered him, and took note. The overall theme had more to do with the American public itself growing numb to the violence of the war, how body bags while we watched TV and ate dinner off trays became nothing special. PTSD wasn’t even a term, but I knew exactly what I was writing about, because I’d observed in several friends, particularly that one, whose wife betrayed just as Quarry’s did him.
At the time, nobody said much to me about the Vietnam aspect – it was too much just a part of everyday life. I did get some comment about Quarry and the comic-book geek Jon who was Nolan’s sidekick in those novels, that I had brought the ‘60s into traditional tough guy fiction. And was maybe one of the first to do so. The first Nolan novel, BAIT MONEY, written in the late ‘60s but published in 1973, had hippies in the supporting cast…not walk-on’s, but major players.
AH-What about the setting in time, that makes it unique? Or work better? I can easily see Quarry being a vet of the Afghan War or Iraq War I. But I’ve read that keeping it in time is very important to you. What do you see as the difference in historical attitude for Vietnam vets and what they experienced that is a core element to Quarry?
MAC-Pretty much any war would do, where the trauma of the returning solider is concerned, and his inability to slip back into a non-violent mode of reaction. But Vietnam was a special case because the public was vocally against it, and the returning heroes weren’t treated as such. I have kept the series in the original time frame in part because of Vietnam remaining apt, but also to stay consistent. After the success of THE LAST QUARRY, which I wrote as a series capper, and a contemporary novel, the possibility of doing more Quarry led me into THE FIRST QUARRY, and the succession of period novels that have followed. I’m essentially continuing the series where the first four left off, back in 1976, filling in between QUARRY’S CUT and QUARRY’S VOTE (original titles -- THE SLASHER and PRIMARY TARGET).
AH-The most famous hit man assassin in Memphis history is James Earl Ray. When we look at Quarry we think of him as having scruples, having a moral compass. In the Quarry books I’ve read he seems to make a strong line in the sand against being a James Early Ray, Lee Harvey Oswald type of killer. “Nothing political” he says. The reality of a hired gun killer is a horrid scenario but we cheer for Quarry. What are you thinking with this? I get that on one hand you just want a fun shoot ‘em up thrill ride. Is there another component where you want readers to think about the concept of justice?
MAC-In the Vietnam era, the noir mystery became dominated by “crook books,” notably Richard Stark’s Parker, who I closely followed with my Nolan books. I wanted to take the criminal protagonist another step – writing in first-person, not the safer third, and making my guy a killer, not a thief. I wanted to confront the reader with just who and what they’re identifying with. In the first book, and most of the rest, I had Quarry commit terrible violence early on, as if to say, “You can get off the bus at this stop, no harm, no foul.” During the story Quarry seems normal and usually has his humanity rekindled by a good woman; but when push comes to shove, at the end of the book, he reverts to violent form. I hope readers say, “Just who am I identifying with, anyway?” Again, it’s black humor on the one hand, and Quarry as a tragic, damaged hero on the other.
I dealt with the issue of a Martin Luther King-type assassination in QUARRY IN THE BLACK.
AH-The the anti hero in the Humphrey Bogart era gains its archetypes and by the 1970’s is operating in the grey areas with characters like The Mechanic, Carter from Get Carter, Dirty Harry albeit a cop but killer cop. Looking at everything in grey areas really informs our culture but it’s definitely backfired on us. Now we are at place where facts are not considered facts, truth is not truth, up is down, so forth. Do you think there is something to be said for real heroic characters at this point?
MAC-There’s always room for a hero, like Mike Hammer, who I enjoy writing about – but he’s gray, too, isn’t he, in a world he defines as black and white. Either side can embrace a simple hero figure. But in the world of noir – Quarry’s world, Nate Heller’s world – things are more complicated and complex. Not so easy. There’s a have your cake and eat it too aspect to my fiction, I admit – Hammer or Heller or Quarry will deliver rough justice and it feels good to the reader. But I also want the reader to know, to ponder, the consequences for the characters, and to have a realization that the protagonist has not behaved in an admirable way. Satisfying, but not admirable.
AH-Do you watch a-lot of movies set in the 1970’s to keep the vibe fresh in your mind? Do you have any that symbolically represent things the best to you? On the film topic, Westerns and Samurai films inspire me. Are there any of those genres that you dig?
MAC-I have always been a big movie and TV watcher. I have read little crime fiction for decades, having stopped early in my career for various reasons, including being too much of a natural mimic to risk it – I would read Elmore Leonard and start writing dialogue like him, same with George V. Higgins. But I am a big movie fan, of all eras starting with the ‘30s. My library of DVDs and Blu-rays numbers in ten thousand or more. I’m going to pause, and walk across the room and grab a handful of discs waiting for my attention…be right back.
Here’s what I grabbed at random – BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL (Paul Naschy horror); DEAD PIGEON ON BEETOVEN STREET (Samuel Fuller); THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (Nicholas Ray); BIG BAD MAMA (Roger Corman); OUTLAW GANGSTER VIP: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION (Japanese Yakuza fun). Just the first handful I grabbed. As for genres, I do watch a lot of westerns, but specific ones – like Audie Murphy, Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, John Wayne ones. But also lots of British crime – they generally are better than us at episodic TV mystery. Watching the final season of RIPPER STREET at the moment.
AH-I’ve read a few interviews with you where you talk about researching your own life and times. My blog interviews are about the research a writer does to get info to understand a time and place. I think you have a really unique position with Quarry. Do you remember if you did research when you originally wrote the character? How would you juxtapose that with the approach now?
MAC-I’ve always done a certain amount of research, but early on it was mostly for locations or professions a character might be in. The historical bent of the Nathan Heller novels, with true crimes at their center, changes all that. Writing Quarry is the same – I just have to stop and make sure I have the right pop culture and fashions and so on going on. You can’t pinpoint that off the top of your head just because you lived through it. Well, actually my wife Barb can. She can look at a movie and peg the year 9 out of 10 times, and that one miss will be off by maybe a year.
AH-Did you do any research when you visited Memphis? What was your favorite thing visiting Memphis? I’ll assume you stayed at The Peabody! I live close to the city, about 3 hours away and love that town.
MAC-I was in Memphis for about a week of the filming of the pilot. We did stay at the Peabody, and did things like visit Sun Records and the shops downtown. But for QUARRY’S CLIMAX I did historical research – the restaurants, the streets, the neighborhoods, all of that came from research.
AH-What’s your favorite version of “Harlem Nocturne?” Mine is The Viscounts.
MAC-That’s a good one. I liked the TV theme version. But I prefer the Darren McGavin “Mike Hammer” theme. That album is second only to the two “Peter Gunn” LPs. “Staccato” LP from the Cassavetes TV series is also good.
AH-In both Quarry books I read you mention the setting and that you had some help to get the basics but you winged it after a point and that any errors are your own. There’s a great note between pap and pulp in these books. You can overthink, try to get things right and it ends up being no fun. Do you watch these lines or just let it fly and let the editors sweat it?
Even when I’m doing Heller level historical research, which obviously includes setting, I know I am creating a, say, 1930s Chicago of my imagination. The facts are there to give me a sense of reality as much as to do that for readers. In Quarry books, however, I’ve usually stuck to the Midwest. I ventured to Biloxi for QUARRY’S CHOICE, one of my favorites of the novels, and to Memphis for QUARRY’S CLIMAX to bring the Dixie Mafia and the Southern aspect of the TV series into the books, as well. The second season of the TV series, which did not occur unfortunately, was going to be based on QUARRY’S CHOICE. If you’re wondering why CHOICE is a favorite, it’s the girl – Luann – who is the best female character I ever created. My very favorite Quarry, though you didn’t ask, is THE WRONG QUARRY. Of the early books, it’s QUARRY’S DEAL and I also like QUARRY’s VOTE, the sole ‘80s-written title.