Tribulations of the Shortcut Man features Dick Henry, a private eye who doesn’t necessarily play by the rules but can navigate the Hollywood Hills and the seamy underbelly of Los Angeles with equal sangfroid. In The Shortcut Man, the first in the series, Henry refers to Preston Sturges, creator of brilliant 1940s movies including Christmas in July, Hail the Conquering Hero and The Lady Eve all wistful tales of idealism and lost innocence (not to mention being the father of P.G. Sturges, the book’s author). Henry claims that his favorite Sturges’ movie is Unfaithfully Yours, a telling choice, for that film, along with Tribulations of the Shortcut man is about innocence lost long before the story begins.
There are no prelapsarian ideals or even such memories for Dick Henry. A submarine sailor turned police officer, Henry’s career ended when he pumped four bullets into a child rapist. “The first two bullets” he tells us, “might have had legal justification but the third and fourth were personal. And cops don’t get personal. They just take care of business.”
Henry’s not a cop anymore, so when ex-girlfriend, Pussy Grace, (yes, really) beseeches him to help her solve the mystery of why her rich boyfriend Art Lewis is incommunicado, Henry attempts to untangle this Ariadne’s thread involving a Superior Court judge, assorted movie stars, and crack heads all looking to fleece Lewis out of millions.
One of the pleasures of this novel is the stable of amusing secondary characters.
Scaring off business at Dr. Peach’s veterinary clinic, Loman London, according to Henry,
was a fiftyish wastrel whose contributions to society had not yet added up to a popcorn fart. Two hundred seventy or so pounds were apportioned over his large frame with a hefty surplus accumulating at the waistline. Matted dreadlocks depended thickly to his shoulders. His skin was rough and permanently reddened. Treelike legs, in shorts, interface with the pavement through a pair of huaraches. Loman’s scam was a simple one. He would set up his rolling incense cart in front of a likely business and wait to be paid to go somewhere else.
In a very funny scene, Henry encourages Loman to find a new location through the simple expedient of setting fire to his incense enterprise.
Sometimes one of these characters can even turn into an asset. Henry is hired to remove from the library a large, shabby man dozing at a table. “There, in all his reeking, solitary disglory,” notes Henry “was a library stinker. The stench of long unwashed human flesh was beyond horrible and emanated in waves from the miscreant.”
Rutland Atwater, the stinker, leaves the library, but he soon calls on Henry to offer his services.
“I want to make money. I want to drive a Mercedes. I want a nice apartment. I want to smoke good medical marijuana. I want to fuck beautiful women.”
“What is it that you do better than anyone else, may I ask?”
Atwater clapped his huge, fat hands. “I stink Dick. That’s what I do. I stink. To high heaven. And beyond.”
Atwater’s first job is to visit a lawyer who has long refused to pay what he owes to Henry.
The malodorous man handcuffs himself to a rail, swallows the key, and waits.
One would think being a stinker isn’t much of a job.
It is when you can collect the debt.
The whole cast provides endless entertainment, despite the titular tribulations of poor Dick Henry.
Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.