“Hell was breaking out all over L.A.,” says the main character of Paul D. Marks’ taut noir thriller of grit and gravitas, White Heat. But P.I. Marion “Duke” Rogers has his own demons to contend with while the racially-fraught volatility of the 1992 Rodney King riots plays out from flashpoint to fiery embers.
It is against this incendiary backdrop that the former Navy SEAL and self-flagellating “fuckup” discovers, in accordance with the assessment of his own worst critic, that he’s indeed “fucked up a case.” By taking on a new customer and a cool $250 for a stint that calls for locating Teddie Matson, a long-lost “friend” of the fidgety client, Rogers consents to an opportunistic and avariciously easy way out. Letting his fingers do the finding, a quick call to a close contact at the DMV gets the job done, without ever having to leave his office.
But when Teddie, a promising black actress, turns up dead in a scenario that recalls the 1989 murder of television actress Rebecca Schaeffer, Rogers realizes he had been duped, and that his actions led, or at least contributed, to the tragedy. The guilt-wracked Rogers makes it his mission to find the killer he let get away—“no matter what it took, including my own life.” Moreover, he sees the task at hand as “Atonement for being a lousy detective. For not having my heart in my job. Not doing what I wanted to do. For not living my own life.”
Determined and doubling down, Rogers enters the powder keg of South Central Los Angeles, even—while trying to keep the lid on his role in the slaying–visiting Teddie’s family home, where he ingratiates himself with her mother, irritates her antagonistic brother, and forms a tender if tenuous relationship with Teddie’s sister Rita.
All of these personal interactions are charged with racial implications and undercurrents that not only threaten to break through the surface at any time, but also parallel the violent strife in the streets; Rogers finds himself in peril a few times, in incidents that constitute edge-of-your-seat enthrallment for the reader. Marks, however, author of 30 published stories, offers in this debut novel an unflinching exploration of these racial issues–from latent hostility to the precarious hope for a race-based reach-out–that apply beyond the bounds and binding of White Heat.
As such, the author captures, to evocative achievement, the fragility and fruition of individual and societal overtures, and, more specifically, the on-eggs unease that seemed to permeate racial interrelations in 1992 Southern California, especially during the riots, and in its aftermath.
But expect the unexpected. In an action-walloping award-winner of harrowing twists and turns and novelistic legerdemain—variously punctuated with crisp dialog, staccato bursts of fragments and phrases, and brooding contemplation–it may be no surprise that the course of such brutal truths zig where they might conceivably zag. When you might anticipate the last gasp of a wound-down denouement, then, you may instead be at the point wherein Marks ramps up the tension and raw emotion.
It’s all subject to change, of course: In L.A., hell can break out at anytime.