You're going to love SHORTCUT MAN. I was in deep fond from the first sentence of the opening chapter, "Tilsdale Regrets": "Tilsdale was a professional nonpayer of rent and I'd been sent to see about him." Indeed. The first-person narrative here belongs to Dick Henry, a "shortcut man." And the book belongs to P.G. Sturges.
Sturges has worked in multiple occupations, laboring as a Christmas tree farmer, submarine sailor and musician, among other things. However, he looks like a writer, like a guy who has a million stories to tell, and you'll want to hear every one of them after you start reading his debut novel, which has all the pitch-perfect elements that cause one to love and devour the caper books of Elmore Leonard or the hard-fisted work of Mickey Spillane. You might start reading it at the end of a workday, hoping to unwind before bedtime, or on a Saturday afternoon in between chores. But you won't put it down until you've read every word about Henry, who is very good at what he does, and his personal life, which he does not quite have the same handle on.
Henry is an ex-cop turned private investigator who also takes jobs that call for greasing or working outside of the "system" when that august concept works slowly, poorly, or not at all. Did you have the misfortune of renting an apartment to a tenant who turns out to be a professional deadbeat? Did a contractor do work on your home and leave it in worse shape than it was to begin with? Call Henry. A good deal of what he makes goes to his ex-wife, for whom he still has feelings, and their two children, but that doesn't prevent him from having an active social life all his own.
Problems for Henry begin when he is retained by Artie Benjamin, a producer of pornographic films, to find out if Benjamin's wife has been unfaithful. When Henry determines that such is the case --- a task that is actually quite easy for him --- Benjamin wants to know who she's seeing. Telling Benjamin is not so easy, so Henry lies. Benjamin wants Henry to kill the guy. That creates an even bigger problem for Henry, who lies again. Benjamin next asks to see the body, and Henry just digs himself in deeper and deeper.
Benjamin's wife can't stand her husband, and she's playing three sides against each other in a scheme to make off with his considerable fortune. It's a situation that you just know is going to end badly for somebody, and maybe for everybody. That won't stop you, though, from turning the pages as fast as possible as you race to find out who is going to do what and to whom. And if you're out of breath by the end, at least you'll know that the race was worth the run.
I can't wait for sturges's next novel. This guy was born to write. This isn't a giant book, but it's just right, composed of short chapters consisting of episodic scenes that lead you by the hand, push you from behind, jump on your back, and ride you around the room yelling "eeey-haah!" Deep fond? Forget it. I loved SHORTCUT MAN. And so will you.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 28, 2011