Underpinning these musings is a poignant subplot: the case of a woman concerned about her 78-year-old father, Franklin Tillman, a widower who’s been duped by a church scam. Tillman has naïvely sent $14,000 to Francie, a beautiful Filipino woman said to be doing mission work through a sister congregation in the Philippines. Tillman hopes to marry Francie, but he has never met her. There’s a reason for that: She doesn’t exist. “No fool like an old fool,” Dick reflects. “But who could blame him? When Mr. Tillman looked in the mirror, who deserved to be loved more than Franklin? Behind those rheumy eyes, the game knee, the bad hip, or whatever — Frankie, the fastest kid in eighth grade. Frankie, basketball hero of the victory over St. Ambrose. Frankie, who’d survived that terrible brawl in Pusan, never deserting his buddies though the odds were five to one.”
Exposing the church scam is child’s play, and punishing the guilty is a pleasure. But Dick’s ultimate goal is loftier than that: He aims to preserve Tillman’s dignity and protect his belief in love by keeping him from discovering he’s been duped by it.
Here’s how Dick views Tillman’s dilemma — and his own: “[A]ll of us had suffered terrible blows … we were the walking wounded. Fractured, crushed, punctured, abraded, lacerated. The five categories of injury.” Indeed, right up to the dark twists of the final lines, each character in Shortcut Man suffers emotionally, physically or both. Amid these dire musings, however, Sturges manages to keep the tone of the novel brisk and light, buoyantly showing the human spirit to be not just resilient but optimistic as it confronts life’s grimmest absurdities.
At least twice in the novel, Sturges sneaks in a quick homage to his father, the legendary filmmaker Preston Sturges. One of those shout-outs is to Unfaithfully Yours (1948), a classic Sturges-the-elder black comedy about love, distrust, anger, revenge and a botched murder. With the publication of Shortcut Man, the younger Sturges seems to have successfully channeled his father’s gift for loving portraits of an imperfect society. And in doing so, he has positioned himself to join the ranks of the best comic crime novelists writing today.
Art Taylor writes about mysteries and thrillers for The Washington Post, Mystery Scene and other publications.