My favorite contemporary author, P. G. Sturges, is back with Ipso Fatso, the fourth novel in his Shortcut Man series.
An intoxicating blend of comedy, social commentary, and hardboiled fiction, the series concerns Dick Henry, a fixer known as “the Shortcut Man.” Henry solves problems others can’t resolve and works quickly and effectively. Among his clients this time out is a college student being sexually harassed by her tenured professor and three generations of a Latino family living under one roof who are threatened with eviction by unethical bankers and with deportation by opportunistic politicians.
Obviously when one resolves to take on bankers and politics, one is aiming considerably higher than normal. The nice thing here is neither Dick Henry nor his author have bitten off more than they can chew.
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Angel’s Gate is the third entry in P. G. Sturges’s award-winning Shortcut Man hardboiled mystery series. The book sat on my night stand untouched for a week or so as I couldn’t shake the suspicion that it would mark the descent into formula that befalls most series. It would still be amusing and Sturges’s prose would still be engaging, but it would be the inevitable come down after the joy and freshness of the first two titles.
Early on in the book, there is a sequence where Dick Henry, the Shortcut Man, is hired by a client to find her sister who came out to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune ten years before and has since fallen off the map. It’s a familiar scene that immediately recalls Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, likewise a hardboiled mystery about Hollywood scandal and hypocrisy. That book was Chandler’s fifth and, while still essential reading, it lacks the freshness and vitality of his early Philip Marlowe mysteries.
I was certain I would feel the same way about Angel’s Gate. Happily, I was dead wrong.
The premise this time revolves around a highly successful movie director who disfigures and tortures a starlet during a drug-fueled sex romp and the lengths his handlers are willing to go to protect the director’s reputation and prevent bad publicity coming down upon his current production. Complicating matters is the fact that the starlet is one of a stable of nearly thirty nubile women that the reclusive and highly idiosyncratic movie mogul Howard Hogue has selected as his personal concubines. Hogue doesn’t share his women. Hogue is also the director’s producer. Early on, Sturges establishes the madness of big studio Hollywood as a house of cards just waiting for the Shortcut Man to blow it down.
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The late Leo McCarey is remembered by most film buffs today for his imitation Capra-corn, The Bells of St. Mary’s and Going My Way starring everyone’s favorite likeable cad, Bing Crosby as the sort of priest you’d find in a parish where the nuns looked like Ingrid Bergman. Turn back the clock a few more decades and McCarey was the finest comedy director in Hollywood capturing the very best performances from Laurel & Hardy, an aging Harold Lloyd, and the Marx Brothers in their prime (when Zeppo was still part of the act). McCarey patented the chain reaction gag which tasked the comedy filmmaker with finding a way to consistently “top the topper.”
That was no mean feat. Once you get your biggest belly-laugh from the audience and then set out to find an even bigger laugh, you’re laying the groundwork for disappointment. Quite simply, no one can be that funny all the time. Yet McCarey managed it time and again and so did several other comedy directors who followed in his wake like Howard Hawks, a young Frank Capra (before sentimentality robbed him of his comic timing), Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder. Very few others have managed to scale those same dizzying heights since Hollywood’s Golden Age and the lost art of the chain reaction gag is one of the measures by which one may easily separate modern and classic comedy. Comedy, in its purest form, allows us to break the pain barrier and laugh.
Such ruminations on the art of comedy are entirely appropriate when discussing P. G. Sturges, a new talent who arrived on the literary scene last year with The Shortcut Man. It was easily my favorite book of 2011. It had everything going for it: a hardboiled mystery mixed with high farce, a keen ear for dialogue, and an even sharper wit in laying bare personal and cultural failings in modern society. Any book that makes the reader think, consistently laugh, and still keeps them riveted to discover the next twist the story will take is exceptional.
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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.
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