Vortex by Paul D Marks

3 Mins read

Vortex is a first-person narrated novella which readers can blast through in a couple of hours. It’s a hardboiled thriller with strong noir overtones, and is about the past – how you can’t change it or the mistakes you’ve made, and how the past changes you.

Vortex is set in Los Angeles, around the time American soldiers started returning from Afghanistan. On the surface Zach Tanner had it all. He was a high school football star with a childhood sweetheart, Jessie, that all the boys fancied. Zach had a solid middle-class upbringing, and was the boy most likely to make it in Hollywood because of his movie star looks. He hung out with his mates – calling themselves the Musketeers – Bryon, Carlos and Matt.

However sometimes appearances can be deceptive. Zach’s dad was poorly with emphysema, and he and his brother Chris were barely getting on. Zach was also beginning to realise that LA was full of rich, handsome kids who thought Hollywood owed them a living, and that really he didn’t stand out from the herd of other hopefuls.

On a drunken whim the Musketeers decided to sign up after graduation and they joined the National Guard. Bryon and Carlos returned from battle to their Santa Monica stomping ground but Zach got injured in an ambush and his rehabilitation delayed his return by a few months. Matt is still out there, though Zach is not entirely sure what he’s doing.

The war, the injuries and his facial scars have changed Zach. The dreams of his youth, of stardom and such, seem superficial and childish, as do his friends who still harbour those ambitions. He still has feelings for Jessie. Part of him knows that marrying her and living happily ever after is just another childhood fantasy that he should let go off, but he still wants to see her again. They meet up, and at least initially they get along, but as Zach is reintroduced to their old friends he is dismayed that none of them have given up on their old dreams of stardom, even though none has had any real success. Jessie’s best friend Kayla has even become a medium who works on the pier, trying to catch the occasional tourist dollar.

Zach and Jessie meet Carlos and Bryan at a bar one night. Everything is friendly as Jessie gets drunk, but once she’s out of the picture the atmosphere changes. Old resentments and jealousies come to the surface as the alcohol loosens tongues and lowers inhibitions. Carlos and Bryan start taunting Zach, calling him movie star, and they demand what is theirs.

It turns out that the four of them hatched a smuggling plan while out in Afghanistan and Matt was supposed to be sending certain things to Zach to pick up on his return. One problem is it hasn’t arrived; another is convincing Bryan and Carlos of this. A third is that Zach isn’t sure he wants it to. The legal dimension of his crime doesn’t bother him so much as the thought that it is just another get rich quick scheme – the kind he’s lost faith in.

Eventually the threats turn to violence, and Zach has to flee, taking Jessie with him. The heat is turned up an extra notch when the military police begin investigating.

For 75 per cent of it’s length, Vortex works really well. Marks, a Shamus Award winner for his novel White Heat, clearly know his way around a crime story. The missing package is an effective MacGuffin, serving to move the action around the greater Los Angeles area, and Zach’s internal monologue has an authentic noir voice, a combination of anger and regret. But the book loses something towards the end. Marks fits in nearly as many plot twists into his novella as Chandler would use in a full length novel. The result is confusing and serves to drop you out of the story. I would have been happier if it were a little shorter but more direct.

None the less, if you like your crime in small packages, Vortex is worth a whirl.

For more hardboiled, look here. Vortex is released 1 September.

Timeless Skies

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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