IT’S TEN THIRTY IN LOS ANGELES on a Thursday night. Your buddy, who’s been a friend since your Berkeley days and still lives in Oakland, is in for the weekend visiting an old girlfriend. He’s strictly a San Francisco Bay Area cat and has never really been into Los Angeles, and you’ve decided to give him your version of a mini-tour. Now you’re headed west from Skylight Books on Vermont. You tell your friend you’re going to buy him a chilidog at a place called Pink’s on La Brea, and you’ve been talking about it off and on between side trips — pointing out Bukowski’s old apartment and where Nat West lived near Lafayette Square. Except when you get to Pink’s, it’s closed because some knotwad in a ’94 Astrovan just T-boned the side of the joint, and you’re left sitting there, parked across the street at a meter with fire hoses on the pavement and emergency lights going off everywhere, trying to explain to this old friend the sensation of eating a Pink’s chilidog, with extra onions. Well, reviewing P.G. Sturges’s rollicking new L.A. crime novel, Shortcut Man, is a bit like explaining how that chilidog will taste. You’d better just step up to the counter, plunk your money down, and let your senses roll.
Sturges and I have a few things in common (which I’m pretty sure is why I was asked to review his book here): we were both born and raised in Los Angeles, and both our fathers were in the movie business as screenwriters. Both of them are/were famous. We’ve also both written novels set in Los Angeles, and our writing careers came to us later in life. I’m a recycled drunk and, among other things, a former cab driver. Sturges spent many years in the military and still has a career as a successful meteorologist.
P.G.’s father, Oscar-winner Preston Sturges, loved the film business and parlayed his way from New York playwright to Hollywood icon, first becoming a screenwriter and then a groundbreaking director. Conversely, my own father hated the movie business — but loved Southern California and the good life. He deep-sixed an important early career as an author, then spent forty years picking up very chunky paychecks at all the major studios. After his death, John Fante was rediscovered as a fine American novelist. Most of his screenplays, however, were less than memorable.
Once, as a teenager, I remember watching Preston Sturges’s The Great McGinty on TV while eating dinner at home with my dad. At the end of the movie, when the commercials came on, Pop made a comment about the film that, for a change, wasn’t snide or hostile: “That’s a Preston Sturges movie, kid. I knew him at (RKO or Warner’s or MGM). Nice guy. We had lunch a few times. Good writer, too.” High praise from John Fante who had little propensity in that direction when it came to his Hollywood peers.
Now comes P.G. with Shortcut Man. From what I’ve read about the author and the book, it will be the first in a series featuring the protagonist, Dick Henry, and I’m looking forward to the next in line. Henry’s an ex-cop who makes his living shortcutting through red tape for frustrated landlords, suckers taken in by con men, and anyone else who’ll pay the bill. He administers formidable beatings, collects his clients’ money, and dispenses moral lessons: “It’s wrong to take advantage of little old ladies.” As I said earlier, I’m not about to ruin your appetite by telling you all about the ingredients; it’s enough to say that Henry’s latest case — tracking a porn magnate’s cheating wife — has him chasing his own tale.
Sturges’s novel is a well-paced and suspenseful damn good read, full of deft observations, honest sentiment, and screwball touches that would make his father proud. Henry’s a man who can land a punch that snaps the recipient’s “teeth together like a dollar mousetrap,” but can also dish out tough-guy lyricism worthy of Chandler or Macdonald: “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.” Shortcut Man is definitely a cut above the rack of mass-market detective fiction you’ve scanned at your local (going-out-of-business) bookstore.
So why does a writer with the ability and insight of a P.G. Sturges choose to play around with crime fiction? His talents probably exceed the sum of the book’s parts. Here’s a guy with the chops to write something that critics just might call important American literature. I mean, an L.A. detective novel? But the truth is, that genre only seems tired on the surface. Someone with Sturges’s skills can exceed — or even exploit — its limitations. It’s a cooking challenge: you’ve got the ingredients, now make the recipe your own. What does Sturges bring to the table? His own loopy humor (check out the celebrity 8x10s made out to Jesus Christ), a Laurel Canyon vibe, and — here I go telling you about that chilidog.
And if you think this kind of thing isn’t worth a serious writer’s attention, ask yourself: would a Preston Sturges, John Fante, William Faulkner, or William Saroyan thumb their noses at the prospect of, say, putting words in the mouth of Charlie Sheen? Would F. Scott Fitzgerald turn down a collaboration on a CSI Miami script? The answer: a resounding no, of course. They would and did do just that sort of thing. As a result, the throwaway fare they turned their attention to wasn’t throwaway at all. And oh, by the way, did you want fries with that?