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Review: Shortcut Man

Tough guys, a moll with moxie and schemes galore make for a debut novel to remember

Let’s say you want to evict a “professional nonpayer of rent” without the bother of court.

Call Dick Henry.

Or perhaps you let someone camp in your yard, and now his tent has grown into a squatters’ commune.

Dick Henry’s here to help.

Or maybe your ceiling has just been replastered when pieces of it rain down on your breakfast table, but the contractor ignores your calls.

Listen to Dick Henry himself explain how he dealt with that third  situation: “The celestial forces of karma drew my fists forward in a left, right, left to the gut followed by a right uppercut to the chin, which snapped his teeth together like a dollar mousetrap.” After extracting $2,200 from the contractor’s cashbox (including a $500 fee for himself), Dick issues some parting advice: “It’s wrong to take advantage of little old ladies. You get me?”

Sure, we get him — and Dick Henry has got us as well, boasting a nice mix of charm and swagger as the narrator and title character of P. G. Sturges’s captivating and breezily confident debut novel, Shortcut Man.

In many ways — right down to the L.A. setting — Dick echoes the prototypical tough guy of the Raymond Chandler school: hard on the surface, romantic to the core, freighted with existential angst. He believes, for example, that “beautiful women were lies in and of themselves. Without a single word they made extravagant promises. And in the next breath they broke them.” Elsewhere he reflects how “Every now and then, at night, the distant thrum of a car or the scent of the wind through the trees would sync up with an old memory and create a fleeting pocket of three-dimensional wistfulness, bittersweet on the tongue.”

The set-up here is classic film-noir nastiness, replete with a breathtaking femme fatale. Dick is hired by “erotica” producer Artie Benjamin to find out whether Artie’s wife, Judy, is cheating on him — no names or photos, please, just a simple yes or a no. The job seems easy enough until Dick lays eyes on Judy: She’s a dead ringer for his own current fling, a frisky stewardess named Lynnette. Indeed, Judy is Lynnette — and suddenly Dick Henry is investigating himself. Complications ensue when Artie’s “I just need to know” escalates into ever-more-pressing requests, with correspondingly zany fallout — film noir verging on dark screwball comedy.

Shortcut Man takes no shortcuts around moral tangles. The knottiest of them stretch back to a gripping episode from Dick’s younger days policing L.A.’s Koreatown, where he first took justice into his own hands. But the novel is also about love (and sex too, readers should be aware): how love lures you in, how you have to protect it — and protect yourself from it — and what betrayal feels like. Can Dick resist Judy/Lynnette? Does she truly love him? Dick confesses that he has no idea what romantic love is anymore: “Maybe I never did. Is it that perfectly spherical satisfaction of wishing to be nowhere else? That conspiracy of two against the universe?”

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.