In noir 'Shortcut Man,' a beeline to thrills

January 31, 2011

I was prepared to do the right thing by P.G. Sturges. That is, to mention only in passing, perhaps at the end of this review, that he's the son of Preston Sturges, the Hollywood screenwriter and director who gave us such witty classics as "Easy Living," "Remember the Night," "The Lady Eve" and "The Palm Beach Story." The child of a genius has a tough enough lot in life, I told myself, without having somebody else harp on the connection.

But then several things happened as I read "Shortcut Man," the younger Sturges's first novel. He had the good sense not to compete directly, instead tackling a genre (the noir thriller) that his father never tried. And then, about halfway through, P.G. himself brought up his dad. Or, rather, his protagonist, Dick Henry, did, mentioning Preston Sturges while driving past the site of the Los Angeles nightclub whose failure sent the director into a long financial and artistic decline. And, finally, the book turned out to be what the elder Sturges might have called "a wow." So I feel free to address the subject right off: The kid (who is now in his 50s) is a credit to his old man.

Dick Henry, an ex-cop for the LAPD, bills himself as the shortcut man because he specializes in bypassing the legal system to take care of wrongdoers who exploit it to keep doing wrong. In the opening vignette, for example, a landlord hires Dick to budge a tenant who will neither pay his rent nor move out, taking advantage of laws and judicial procedures to outstay his welcome for months on end. Henry brings this "professional nonpayer of rent" around by roughing him up. The beauty of hiring Dick is that he still has enough friends on the force to be assured of impunity in case one of his victims is silly enough to complain.

Soon Dick is working for Artie Benjamin, a wealthy porn producer who wants to find out what virtually all noir husbands do: Is my voluptuous wife, the one I married after making it big, cheating on me? The fee Benjamin offers to pay for this sleuthing is sweet, but the job turns sour when it emerges that the adulteress is none other than Lynette, the beautiful and sexually adventurous flight attendant with whom Dick is having an affair. Lynette, of course, isn't a flight attendant at all - she pretended to be one in order to account for the limited amount of time she can spend with Dick. When confronted with her duplicity, Lynette - real name Judy - explains, "I gave you all the me I could give you."

This is an interesting variation on a theme from "The Maltese Falcon," "Double Indemnity," "Red Rock West" and many another noir vehicle (whether novel or film, or both): A money-hungry dame ropes in her pursuer, who wants to believe her when she tells him that she's made a pile of mistakes in her hard life but now, having met him, has figured out at last what love really is.

"Oh, you're good," Humphrey Bogart tells Mary Astor in "The Maltese Falcon" when she goes into her sincere-at-last mode. Judy is good, too - as well as sexy enough to stop conversation in a restaurant when she walks in - and the driving question of "Shortcut Man" is whether Dick has it in him to be better.

Sturges has an ample supply of authorial ingenuity, which he distributes throughout the novel. Besides saddling Dick with the burden of, in effect, investigating himself, he puts this shortcut man in the predicament of having "to kill, convincingly, someone who never lived." Occasionally, Sturges might have given his story a bit more room to breathe - some of the action scenes seem rushed, more like stage directions than narrative - and it's difficult to put much credence in a jocular flashback about a little boy masquerading as a priest in a confessional.

But overall, this is an assured and diverting performance, with an ending that should impress even the most seasoned fan of hardboiled detective stories. You thought every twist ending in the noir bag had been taken out and used up, P.G. Sturges seems to be saying as the book rushes toward its final page. Well, get a load of this.

Drabelle is the mysteries editor of Book World.

SHORTCUT MAN

P.G. Sturges

Scribner.

209 pp. $24

SHORTCUT MAN

P.G. Sturges

Scribner.

209 pp. $24

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