Friday, February 26, 2016

Vortex and The Green Absinthe Fairy

Award winning author, Paul D. Marks joins us today for Drinks with Reads to teach us about how to drink Absinthe and tell us about his new novella, Vortex.

Got tight on absinthe last night. Did knife tricks.
                                                        –Ernest Hemingway

When I think of absinthe I have romantic visions of the Left Bank, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and their crowd of ex-pats in the 1920s, sitting in outdoor cafes, smoking, talking, sipping of the green fairy. So when it came to writing a story where some of the characters drink absinthe, I of course set it not in Paris, but in the mean streets of Los Angeles in the present, where there are no Hemingways. No Fitzgeralds. And the only romance (a different kind, of course, from my larger romantic vision of Paris) is the romance of chasing the bling.

In my noir novella Vortex, Zach Tanner is on the run. He can run from the war, but he can't run from himself. Zach and his friends stole a lot of money while in Afghanistan, but Zach comes back a changed man—war does that to people. But not to his friends Carlos, Bryan and Matt. All Zach wants to do now is get back to a normal life with his girlfriend, Jess, and otherwise be left alone. But it’s hard to get away from your best friends, who think you’ve stolen their bling—their spoils of war.

The characters are young, edgy and hip. They go to a hookah lounge, reminisce, smoke, drink absinthe and betray their friendships. 
 Bryan and Carlos sat in a back corner, where a small, round lamp hanging over the table put up the good fight to light the area. It almost succeeded. A dark green absinthe bottle on the table battled for space with the hookah. I guess Bry and Carlos thought it was cool. I didn’t want to tell them that today’s absinthe was a poor imitation of the notorious absinthe of the 1920s. A lot less hell—or heaven, pick your poison—in the bottle these days. But it did have the day-glow absinthe fairy on the label. Jess and I squeezed into the tiny booth. Bryan poured some of the green liquid into two glasses. Laid a slotted absinthe spoon over the first. He placed a single sugar cube on the perforated part of the spoon. Picked up a pitcher of icy water and dripped it over the sugar cube. The water trickled through the holes in the spoon to hook up with the absinthe in the glass. He stirred the drink with the spoon. The liquid louched, turning cloudy. Handed the glass to Jess. Repeated the ritual and gave me the second glass. I wondered why a place like the Manakeesh wouldn’t have absinthe fountains. 
“To home,” he said. 
We all clinked a toast to home. Only I didn’t feel at home....

...We booked a few minutes later, drifting out to the parking lot. Light spilled from the lamps and overflowed from the street. Streaks of green and orange, red and purple snaked across the pavement—or at least my line of sight. That was the Absinthe Fairy talking directly to me. The way Bryan and Carlos were looking at me I didn’t know if I’d make it home in one piece or not. We might have been friends, but war changes people. Money changes them even more. Big money, well—

Why a novella: 

Absinthe is the aphrodisiac of the self. The green fairy who
lives in the absinthe wants your soul. But you are safe with me.
                                     —From the movie Dracula

Director: Francis Ford Coppola,
Writers: Bram Stoker (novel),
James V. Hart (screenplay)

I love film noir for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here. And one of the sub genres of film noir is the returning vet, particularly after World War II. So I wanted to do an updating of that theme. I had a deal to do a novella with a publisher who subsequently closed up shop. But regardless of that, I felt that a novella was the right length for the story I wanted to tell in a (hopefully) cinematic form. The story seemed suited to that length, shorter than a novel, but long enough to tell it in a way that packs a punch, no extraneous stuff. It’s a crime story, a noir story in the traditional sense. To me, the thing that most makes something noir is not rain, not shadows, not femme fatales, not slumming with lowlifes. It’s a character who trips over their own faults: somebody who has some kind of Achilles heel, some kind of shortcoming, greed, want or desire that leads them down a dark path, and then his or her life spins out of control because of their own weaknesses or failings. And besides being an homage to the old film noirs about returning vets, there’s probably some inspiration from David Goodis and his down and out anti-heroes, particularly Eddie in Down There. I did a piece on this here: 

Why Absinthe:

After the first glass of absinthe you see things as
you wish they were. After the second you see them
as they are not. Finally you see things as they really
are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.
                                                                                                   —Oscar Wilde 

For a long time absinthe was outlawed in the United States. It became legal in the 2000s. It’s a long story better left to be checked out on the net. It always had a rep about making people crazy, causing hallucinations and the like, which is the reason it was banned. But it came back and has a certain aura about it, and not just because of the Green Fairy. So it seemed like the logical drink to have Zach and Jess and Zach’s army buddies, Carlos and Bryan, drink when they went out on the town for a night of fun...that doesn’t quite turn out that way, at least not for Zach. 

However, American absinthe isn’t the same as European. It has less thujone, which is what essentially makes absinthe, absinthe and would be the equivalent of coffee minus caffeine. Maybe I’m overstating a bit...  It’s very complicated and if you’re interested you might want to look it up.

And I chose the bottle in the picture mostly because it looks so cool.

Directions / How to drink absinthe:

The Goddess. What is the fascination that
 makes her so adorable and so terrible?
                                              —Aleister Crowley

Here’s the traditional way to drink absinthe, which I think I pretty much described in the quote from the book above. 

Ingredients:  Absinthe, sugar cubes, a pitcher of ice water; Optional: lemon peel or mint sprig to garnish. 

Tools: 6 oz. glass, absinthe spoon (or slotted spoon if you don’t have an absinthe spoon on hand)
Optional tools: absinthe fountain or balancier or brouille, carafe or pitcher, absinthe reservoir glass, Pontarlier glass

Pour 1 to 1.5 oz. of absinthe into glass
Place absinthe spoon (slotted spoon) over the glass 
Place 1 to 2 sugar cubes on top of the spoon
Slowly pour chilled water over the sugar cube and into the glass (do not allow ice cubes to fall in glass)
The absinthe will “louche” or become cloudy
At this point drop the remaining sugar off of the spoon into the drink 
Use the spoon to breakup any clumps of sugar and stir
Garnish with some lemon peel or a sprig of mint. (optional)
Sip and enjoy!

Some other interesting ways to serve Absinthe in cocktails:

Death in the Afternoon (a drink supposedly invented by Hemingway):  Pour 1 ½ oz. of absinthe into a champagne flute. Pour chilled champagne into the flute. Drink up!

Absinthe Sour (makes 4 drinks):
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, add 1/4 cup absinthe, 1/2 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice, 1/2 cup fresh squeezed lime juice, 2/3 cup simple syrup, 1/2 cup gin.  Shake well. Garnish with 1 maraschino cherry and an orange slice.

The darkest forest
melts into an open meadow
as waves of green seduce.
Sanity surrendered, 
the soul spirals toward
the murky depths, 
wherein lies
the beautiful madness-

         —Peggy Amond, Rimbaud’s Poison

An excerpt from the opening of Vortex:

All I wanted was to forget the past. Put it behind me and never think about it again. But you can’t forget the past. Not really. It’s always there inside you, like a leech holding on, sucking blood and life from you every minute of every day. Sucking down part of your soul, holding you back and keeping you from moving forward. Like a shark, if you don’t—or can’t—move forward you die. The past is one harsh mistress. And it won’t let you forget it either. 
I came home from the war and felt like I was on the front line again. To hell and back and back to hell again. 
We dodged a flashy Beamer, zipping around it, nearly taking the S curve on two wheels. Rounding the curve, I let off the gas, and pedaled down as we came out of it. Sunset Boulevard. Famous road. Treacherous road. Been in more movies and songs than maybe any other street. Everything from Annie Hall and 77 Sunset Strip, to Dead Man’s Curve, by Jan and Dean, the Eagles’ song Sunset Grill and, of course, Billy Wilder’s famous movie simply called Sunset Boulevard. 
Sunset Fucking Boulevard. 
The windy road ran from the gleaming spires of downtown L.A. to the silvery sparkle of the ocean. From wealth to poverty and back to wealth. It was the real red carpet of the City of Angels—yeah, city of angels. And Jessie and I were tearing down that famous road, trying to get the hell away. Trying to lose that goddamn red Camaro. 
I whipped the car into a hard right turn, flying off of Sunset onto Pacific Coast Highway, heading north. The Mustang nimbly took the turn, careening onto PCH. It was the opposite of where I wanted to go, but they’d see us turn north, so let them think we were heading that way, up to Monterey or San Francisco. Figure we were going up there to hide out. 
“What’re you doing?” Jessie said, clutching the handhold. 
“We have to get out of here.” 
“Talk to them, Zach.” 
“We can’t go back. Don’t you understand, they’ll kill us.” 
“They’re your friends.” 
“Yeah.” The first rule of war is know your enemy. And I knew mine, too well—or maybe not well enough.

Thank you for having me here at Drinks with Reads. I’ve enjoyed having a drink with you.


Paul D. Marks pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about it, which makes him uniquely qualified to write noir and mystery fiction. He is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning noir mystery-thriller White Heat. Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a “taut crime yarn.” His story Howling at the Moon (EQMM 11/14) was short-listed for both the 2015 Anthony and Macavity Awards for Best Short Story, and came in #7 in Ellery Queen’s Reader’s Poll Award. Midwest Review calls Vortex, Paul’s new noir novella, “…a nonstop staccato action noir.” He also co-edited the anthology Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea. His short story Deserted Cities of the Heart will appear in Akashic Books’ St. Louis Noir anthology, due out in summer, 2016 and Ghosts of Bunker Hill will be in an upcoming issue of Ellery Queen.


  1. Love this and can't wait to read VORTEX.

  2. I am also fascinated by the mystery and romance of 1920s Paris, and love how much you wove absinthe into your novella. It sounds edgy and dark, can't wait to read it (white sipping the Absinthe Sour).

    1. Thanks, Kerry. If you drink enough absinthe you'll think you're in Paris in the 1920s ;) .

  3. The novella sounds fabulous, as does the drink! I would like to curl up with both this weekend.

    1. Thank you, Kim. Add a little rain into the mix and it would be the perfect weekend. :)

  4. The novella sounds fabulous, as does the drink! I would like to curl up with both this weekend.

  5. This was a great read and right up my alley! BTW, not sure I ever told you how much I enjoyed Vortex

  6. Thanks, Karin. Glad you liked Vortex. Hope you read with a glass of absinthe at your side. :)

  7. Wish I was Jessie...
    Great piece. Gotta read the novella.

    Sunset Blvd was the only place my mother wanted to see during her visit from Cornwall, UK. And the Queen Mary, of course.

    1. Thanks, Jill. I hope your mom got to see Sunset. It's really an interesting microcosm of LA if you take it from Union Station (though the name's been changed towards that end) to the beach. I walked much of it once a very long time ago. That was a trip.