'70s Pulp Violence Returns in Cinemax's Quarry

Book series becomes television drama.


'Quarry,' Cinemax

Quarry. Cinemax. Friday, September 9, 10 p.m.

Back in the days when drug-store book racks were crowded with manly-men titles like The Executioner, Death Merchant, and even—maybe, in the back of the store?The Man From O.R.G.Y.,one of the most popular was the Quarry series. Like those other protagonists, Quarry was a hypermasculine gunman who killed and coupled with stupefying frequency and enthusiasm, but he was probably the only one who began life as a character in a master of fine arts thesis project. (Author Max Allan Collins, who would go on to become one of the most prolific pulp authors of the next five decades, was a grad student at the University of Iowa.) And he was certainly the only one with no pretenses to patriotism, national security or crime-busting: Mac "Quarry" Conway was a contract killer who learned his trade as a (moderately psychotic) Marine sniper in Vietnam. His targets were usually marginally worse human beings than he was, but it was always a close call and not one that Quarry spent much time contemplating.

Forty years and 13 novels after his birth on the printed page, Quarry is making the jump to television, in an oddly absorbing new Cinemax series about alienation, amorality and blowing people's heads off, not necessarily in that order.

Logan Marshall-Green (The O.C.) plays the title character, who with foxhole buddy Arthur (Jamie Hector, The Wire), returns home to Memphis in 1972 from a second tour of duty in Vietnam, but not exactly to the strains of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again."

"Y'all got any other clothes you could change into?" Arthur's wife asks the men as they get off their plane. Anti-war protesters, inflamed by accusations (legally dropped, but not in the court of public opinion) that they participated in a massacre of civilians, are surging around the airport. Even safely past the airport fracas, they find themselves in dead-end jobs, haunted by combat flashbacks, and surrounded by families that seem to have moved on while they were gone.

The only person who seems unreservedly glad to see them is a shadowy figure who calls himself The Broker, who after a brief bout of shadow-boxing offers a pile of cash and guns in return for their exercise of a proven skill set: "All you gotta do is pull the trigger, something we both know you're good at." Quarry isn't sold. "If you do this, you are who they say you are," he warns Arthur, who scoffs that whoever they're being asked to kill probably deserves it more than their targets in Vietnam: "We're not talking about preachers and librarians here." They take the offer, Quarry reluctantly; but when the first hit is botched, he finds himself in a legal, financial and emotional quagmire from which withdrawal is no easier than it was from the Mekong Delta.

Though Quarry will certainly be recognizable to anyone who followed the books, the show makes some significant changes from the novels, all wise. The most obvious is the exchange of the Midwestern setting for the mid-South, which in the 1970s was a free-fire zone for the redneck gangs that became known as the Dixie Mafia. (Whether or not you regard an axe handle as the most effective tool to combat bands of pimps and moonshiners, Buford Pusser, the bully-boy sheriff of the Walking Tall movies, was a real person.) The Southern noir motif lends Quarry some real atmosphere.

More startling, in some ways, are the changes to Quarry's character. Instead of the ruthless killing machine of the novels, he's got a streak of moral introspection. He's troubled by the killings, angry that anyone would think him capable of carrying them out … and appalled that he actually can.

That change was almost certainly necessary to turn Quarry into a television series—an hour of compunctionless slaughter a week would have gotten real old, real quick—but it also helps capture the moral exhaustion of 1972 America, a nation weary of not just Vietnam but the endless self-laceration of the debate over the war. Soldiers weren't the only ones worrying that we were who they said we were.