Max Allan Collins has been a Mystery Writers of America Edgar nominee in both fiction and nonfiction categories, has earned eighteen Private Eye Writers of America “Shamus” nominations, and his graphic novel, “The Road to Perdition” was the basis for the Academy Award winning movie. In this interview, Collins discusses his latest novel, “The Wrong Quarry.”
In 1971, while Collins was attending the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, he created the killer-for-hire Quarry character. Collins said, “He [Quarry] was intended to work on a couple of levels. First, he was a Vietnam vet with PTSD before that term was coined. I had friends who went to Vietnam, and some died, and it was very much on my mind. Second, as somebody who didn’t go to Vietnam, I was struck by the numbing effect of the war on the American populace—they would watch body bags being loaded onto planes on the evening news as they ate TV dinners on trays. I felt we had all become numb from this war, and the Quarry character represented that.”
The idea of a killer for hire as a protagonist was highly unusual at the time Collins created his character, but it was a decision brought on by the times, which were filled with a young, rebellious spirit. Collins said, “At the start of my career I was very influenced by the Parker novels by Donald E. Westlake, writing as Richard Stark. I wrote an imitative novel that spawned a series about a similar professional thief. But such novels, where the reader identifies with a criminal—a big trend during a time when young people distrusted and disliked cops in particular and the Establishment in general—seemed to me a cop-out of sorts. Instead of a thief, I gave the reader a professional killer to identify with. Instead of the distance of third-person, I told Quarry’s story in first person, in his voice. To this day, readers are disturbed by how normal Quarry seems outside of the killing aspect of his life and profession. That’s very much on purpose—Quarry is us, post-Vietnam. Now, he is us post-Iraq.”
For those who like to read for fun, this series might sound too philosophical—which would be way off the mark. Collins didn’t write this series with anything pretentious in mind, he wrote the books for pure entertainment. “These books are meant to be fun,” he said. “They are chiefly designed as entertainment. I consider noir fiction to be melodrama—at least mine is—and Quarry is in particular a dark comedy. You are allowed to smile and even laugh, despite the despicable things you’ll encounter.”
“The Wrong Quarry” is the eleventh installment in the series from Collins. That’s a lot of books about one character, but Collins has a philosophy about writing that should make readers take notice. He said, “With a series, the writer looks for something unique that can be brought to a new book. I see no reason to write books I’ve already written before, and that’s the danger of a recurring protagonist. In ‘The Wrong Quarry’ I had a specific premise in mind, unlike anything I’d done before with Quarry, or any other character. I can’t say more, because—here’s a late ’60s reference for you—that would be telling.”
Times and reader preferences have, of course, changed since the first Quarry novel was written. Due to the length of time since the first novel in the series was published, Collins faced some unusual, if not unique, challenges. He said, “The first four Quarry novels were published in the mid-’70s, and the first one was started, as I said, in 1971. I did another in the mid-’80s, and when Hard Case asked me to do another a few years ago, I set it more or less in a contemporary frame, with Quarry a much older guy. That book was called ‘The Last Quarry,’ and it was intended to be the final book in the series. It still is, chronologically speaking. But when ‘The Last Quarry’ was well-received, I decided to go back and write some more stories about Quarry in the original time frame. In other words, a series that began as contemporary has suddenly become historical.”
Thirty to forty years ago is a long time to remember details accurately enough to portray them in a novel. For Collins, the desire to ensure his novels are historically accurate puts him in the position of needing to verify everything he remembers. He said, “I find myself researching the ’70s and ’80s, obviously years I lived through. If I’d known I was going to do this I’d have paid closer attention!”
Learn more about Max Allan Collins on his website at www.maxallancollins.com.