The Shortcut Man is the recently-published debut novel by P. G. Sturges. The author comes by his talent honestly. I say that not only because his father was the legendary Hollywood filmmaker Preston Sturges, but because he brilliantly channels Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson and Donald Westlake while managing to deftly stamp his own style on his impressive first effort as a hardboiled mystery author.
Sturges has his work cut out for him. The hardboiled detective genre, while still alive, seems as rooted in the past as a slapstick comedy. Modern practitioners of the art seem determined to evoke past glories more so than speak to their own world. Updating the genre seems impossible short of cynically adding what used to be considered in polite company foul language and graphic sex scenes to the established structure.
It would be dishonest to pretend that Sturges does not do just that here and yet, somehow the book does not feel like a cynical cheat. Partly this is due to Sturges’ gift for great dialogue (simply saying it is in his genes is to do the man discredit for his own talent) and an innate understanding of human nature and our common foibles observing others’ mistakes as well as his own in his nearly sixty years on this planet. There is no mistaking that this book is as much a cathartic autobiography as it is a genuine detective novel.
So let’s get down to business. Who is Dick Henry and why should readers everywhere track down The Shortcut Man? Dick Henry narrates the book. He’s a likable, but flawed guy. Streetwise, but rarely clever as he makes his living as the guy you hire when you need muscle to get rid of a deadbeat tenant or to right wrongs when you’ve been royally screwed over by unscrupulous contractors. Dick is great at solving everyone’s problems but his own. He prides himself on being patient and subtle (the second one is highly questionable) and is certain his ex-wife will take him back eventually and restore him to the kids he’s desperately trying to forget as he disappears down a loser’s alley of arrested adolescence.
In the hands of a lesser writer, Dick Henry would be an unprepossessing schlub. Sturges makes you believe the character is real and actually care for him. When Henry gives his eleven year-old son a set of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars novels, Sturges describes cover art that countless readers will recognize from their own youth. Nothing here is phony, even the hardboiled aspects are not a put-on. Sturges is not slumming. He’s been there and lived the same life he writes about and it imbues his prose with a realism that rings uncharacteristically true in a genre peopled with poseurs.
The prose is the key selling point here. Sturges transcends detective fiction like the past masters of hardboiled fiction before him by being more interested in people and why they continually make messes of their lives than he is in solving the whodunit. The plot itself is almost inconsequential although the actual meat of the story matters greatly to the themes Sturges develops: a shady producer hires Henry to find out if his actress wife is cheating on him and the detective quickly realizes the unfaithful actress wife is the flight attendant he’s currently sleeping with in a relationship doomed from the start because sex without love is always temporary.
The theme of relationships constantly failing at pivotal junctures of moral consequence because people fear they don’t know themselves any more than they do their partner is really the same story of spiritual bankruptcy and the emptiness of the easy life of Southern Californians (and now, of most Americans) that Chandler and Ross Macdonald told so well in decades past. The world of grafters, users, and abusers is familiar to readers of Jim Thompson and Donald Westlake.
What makes Dick Henry so likable is that the reader recognizes him. They know they’re smarter than him until they realize they make the same mistakes. Ultimately they keep hoping Henry will get his act together and get that Happy Ending he really wants if he could just rise up from being so satisfied with his life.
Dick Henry is an Everyman. He takes short cuts because it always works when it’s other people’s lives yet the shortcuts he takes in his own life have devastating consequences. He hasn’t learned that lesson yet, but he’s patient and thinks he’s subtle so readers will likewise be patient and subtle as they follow him on his journey and do their best not to see his reflection in passing mirrors. The Shortcut Man is a breath of refreshing air in a room we’ve been in so often it might just be our own.
William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press). A sequel, The Destiny of Fu Manchu is due for publication in December 2011. Also forthcoming is a collection of short stories featuring an original Edwardian detective, The Occult Case Book of Shankar Hardwicke and an original hardboiled detective novel, Lawhead. To see additional articles by William, visit his blog at SetiSays.blogspot.com