In the graduate program of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in 1970, I was something of a black sheep. In a way, I wasn’t even supposed to be there.
The great mainstream novelist Richard Yates had taken me under his wing in the undergraduate workshop, but now I had to audition again for the grad program. I submitted Bait Money, the first Nolan novel, which I’d written under the tutelage of Yates. But when I dropped by the Workshop office to see how I fared, I was told I’d been turned down.
The receptionist handed me the rejection notice and some other documents and I sat against the wall in the hallway, dejected. But looking through the material, I discovered I’d accidentally been handed the evaluation of my work. It revealed I’d been cut by a grad student, not one of the instructors (it didn’t get that far), and that grad student had said, “If this person wants to write this kind of thing, he doesn’t need to go to the Workshop.”
I went to Yates, showed him what I’d been mistakenly provided, and this very quiet, low-key man went ballistic. He went to the head of the Workshop, John Leggett, and expressed his outrage. I was re-evaluated by a board of instructors – actual published writers – who gave me the highest marks possible. And I was in.
My experience in class was similar – generally respect from the instructors in a class where perhaps a third loved what I was doing while the rest thought I had my taste in my ass – you know, the kind of writer who would use a phrase like “I had my taste in my ass.”
I had to perform two tasks at the Workshop – first, to write a paper about an American author. Defiant in the face of logic (and self-preservation), I chose Mickey Spillane. Workshop instructor Seymour Krim approached me and thanked me for doing so – he said, “If I have to read one more paper about Hemingway or Fitzgerald, I’ll scream.”
Second, I had to create a thesis consisting of my fiction. At that time, regional writing was scarce in the hardboiled mystery field – John D. MacDonald’s Florida was about it, with Robert B. Parker’s Boston yet to come. Everybody was doing New York or Los Angeles. I felt the Midwest – with its blood-spattered Bonnie and Clyde/John Dillinger heritage – was well-suited.
I determined to write three different crime novels sharing the same small-town setting – Port City, Iowa (the nickname for my hometown, Muscatine). Bait Money was a heist novel in the Richard Stark vein and No Cure for Death was a private eye-style tale in the Chandler manner.
No Cure for Death drew upon Muscatine’s real-life cancer quack, Norman Baker, and touched on the Vietnam war by way of writer Mallory’s friend Jon, based upon my friend Jon McCrea, a combat marine. On leave, Jon would come to class with me at the Workshop in full dress uniform. A typical moment was a student asking, “What do you do over there, anyway?” And Jon saying, “I eat babies.”
The book also delved into the generation gap and racial issues with Mallory’s love interest (a term that dates me) a young black woman. This moved away from the mid-century hardboiled tradition into something more contemporary. But Mallory remained a Marlowe type and in that sense accomplished nothing new.
I wanted to do something different with the third book of my Port City Trilogy. Nolan would always be a Parker clone, even with a young hippie-era sidekick. Mallory would always be Phillip Marlowe filtered through my era. And I was troubled that Nolan, who – like his progenitor Parker – was a bad guy who somehow never managed to harm a civilian.
The Richard Stark technique, however masterful, was something of a cop out – nobody, not even accidentally, got killed who didn’t have it coming or who at least was on the wrong side of the law. At some point I asked myself, would Parker or Nolan work in the first person? Third person was protective, somehow.
A thief – in the Vietnam era – was easy for readers to identify with, much as the bank robbers and even gangsters of the Depression became Robin Hoods to average folks. What if my first-person protagonist was a hired killer? I wanted to confront readers with just who they were identifying with, and make it uncomfortably easy to do so.
I don’t remember how I came up with the name Quarry. He seemed to arrive with that name. It may have had to do with the massive rock quarry on the River Road separating Muscatine from Davenport, a starkly barren landscape my wife Barb and I had driven past countless times. That quarry became the character’s alias (his actual name never revealed) given him by his country-club middle man, the Broker. It also became a key location in the novel.
The central notion was that a hitman – working through a middleman – would be betrayed, and need to solve the murder he committed in order to deal with his betrayer. The hitman would be a Vietnam vet, a well-balanced average person who’d been taught to kill overseas. I had observed several friends come back from Vietnam different people.
I used Jon McCrea again. He had come home from Vietnam to find his wife in bed with another man, and learned she had been a camp follower who’d married several guys shipping out who would die and leave her benefits– rinse, repeat. That incident spoke to the realities of the Vietnam experience in a compelling, vivid way.
Jon was a sweet, funny guy I’d gone to high school with, and he came back funny but not so sweet. After all, he had been a machine gunner in the tail of a helicopter, one of the highest mortality rates in Vietnam. On leave, he would return to Muscatine and we’d spend time together. He would don a terrible Beatle wig and accompany me on band jobs. Once, at a post-gig breakfast at a truck stop, he was called a hippie by a trucker, who he picked up and threw against a wall. He also took me into junk yards to have me shoot the weapons I was writing about in my fiction.
Jon re-enlisted several times and became a mercenary. He was living in the Philippines when he dropped off the grid. I’ve heard that he’s dead, but if he knocked on my door this afternoon, I’m not sure I’d be surprised.
Jon had half his ass shot off, like Audie Murphy. And those two American warriors had more in common than that. Murphy, prior to becoming an underrated Hollywood movie star, had at a very young age become the most decorated combat veteran in our history. A poor white Texan, he was fearless in battle but came home to – in addition to that Hollywood career – a lifetime of sleep deprivation and much else that goes along with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The great David Morrell has discussed with me how we were the first two writers to create heroes (or anti-heroes) who suffered PTSD, a term neither of us knew at the time. Neither did we intend to create series characters – in First Blood, Rambo died, and in Quarry, the title character was left in an untenable position with other killers closing in.
I didn’t complete Quarry before I had to turn my thesis in at the Workshop – it consisted of Bait Money, No Cure for Death and the first third or so of Quarry, and a description of the Port City Trilogy demonstrating that you didn’t have to use New York or LA as the setting for a tough mystery.
The Workshop class – and indeed my instructor, William Price Fox – was mostly not impressed with that third of a book. The first chapter has Quarry killing a priest (or anyway someone dressed as a priest) and the second chapter has a sex scene that isn’t at all sexy. Both are dispassionate – the idea being I would start with Bang! Bang! I wanted to let readers know what they were in for so they could get out of the car now...or buckle up.
Part of the strategy was to show Quarry doing something unpleasant and reprehensible right off the bat, and then throughout the book have him seem normal and be pleasant enough company before he again reveals who he is at the end of the story. This became a recurring aspect of the series.
But, as Morrell said, neither of us intended a series. In fact, Bait Money was not meant to start a series, nor was No Cure for Death or Quarry. In each case, an editor asked for more and, frankly, I’m in the business of providing more when an editor asks.
With Quarry I knew where to start with book two – that untenable position I left him in. This gave me something to do in a sequel, but what about subsequent stories? He had killed the Broker, his middle man. But what if Quarry acquired the Broker’s list – his (in today’s terms) data base of people like Quarry? Hit men and women?
From this came the concept of Quarry choosing a name from the list and following a hit man to his target, with Quarry approaching said target and offering his services. Those services would include removing the hit man (actually a two-person team) and, when possible, determining who hired the hit. That allowed me to do action/adventure while retaining a detective role for Quarry.
At the time, I much preferred Quarry to Nolan and Mallory. I still feel that way. Nolan was, obviously, derivative and Mallory was just another take on Phillip Marlowe. I was, and am, proud of them, particularly as the work of a young writer. But Quarry was special. Quarry did things that hadn’t been done before even while pulling together some of the old themes and influences of the early hardboiled writers.
I thought I was onto something.
But I soon changed my mind. I was lucky that when Nolan got consigned to (thankfully, temporary) limbo, Quarry sold and a series was requested. I wrote the four books in fairly short order – still teaching at the time, and also playing weekends with my rock band. The novels came out within a two-year span and sank like a stone. I found the covers indifferent, and the title of the second – The Broker’s Wife – gave away a major surprise in the narrative (it’s now known as Quarry’s List).
The books were still coming out when I landed the writing of the Dick Tracy comic strip, where I put my emphasis for a while. I was also developing the Nathan Heller character – initially for comics and then for a novel (True Detective).
I began getting fan letters about Quarry. A few reviews had appeared during the initial publication, which was encouraging. Now fans were approaching me at mystery cons to talk about Quarry. He was becoming a cult favorite.
Of course, as Don Westlake told me, “A cult favorite is seven readers short of the writer making a living.”
Over the years, I wrote a few Quarry short stories, and one – “A Matter of Principal” – became much anthologized. Jeffrey Goodman, a young filmmaker, approached me about doing a short film of it. I was pursuing indie filmmaking myself at the time and said yes, if I wrote the screenplay. I did, and Goodman did a great job, the short film appearing (and winning at) a number of festivals.
In the wake of my graphic novel Road to Perdition becoming a Hollywood film, I joined with Goodman to try to get a feature version done of our short film. That eventually occurred, as The Last Lullaby, with me co-writing the screenplay.
Around the same time, Charles Ardai was getting Hard Case Crime off the ground, his retro line of crime novels, some of which were reprints by masters of the form, some of which were new works by up and coming talents in the field. Charles was a Nolan fan and wanted to do Blood Money. I said he could have Bait Money too, for no additional fee, if he’d publish them as one book.
Now, if you’re a fan of this kind of thing, you already know that Hard Case Crime is famous for its outrageously wonderful cover art, in particular new paintings by the legendary Robert McGinnis, whose credits include Spillane covers and James Bond posters. But Two of the Money (as the Nolan pairing was called) was not one of their best.
Charles and I had been discussing my doing an original for his line, and I agreed to do a new Quarry – if he got McGinnis to do the cover. That happened, and I took the opportunity to complete the Quarry series – one last book, The Last Quarry. (I used my draft of The Last Lullaby, not yet shot, as the basis.) How wonderful to have the chance to give my cult series a final entry!
But then something unexpected happened: The Last Quarry was well-received, with glowing reviews and strong sales...and the Quarry movie got made. Charles said it was too bad I’d ended the series. A pity there was no way to do another. I said, “How about The First Quarry?”
And ever since I’ve been filling in the blanks of Quarry’s career, doing both “list” novels and Broker-era stories and having a wonderful time. In 2016 HBO did a Quarry series for Cinemax, for which I wrote a script; though it largely lacks Quarry’s dark humor, it’s a terrific show.
I’ve even done a sequel to The Last Quarry called Quarry’s Blood, out this November – a coda of sorts.
Now I’m only five readers short of making a living.
NEXT: PART FOUR: NATHAN HELLER