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Writing is in P.G. Sturges' blood

The son of writer-director Preston Sturges publishes his first novel, 'Shortcut Man,' a hard-boiled mystery with humor.

February 12, 2011|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • P.G. Sturges, son of filmmaker Preston Sturges, is the author of a new detective novel, "Shortcut Man."
P.G. Sturges, son of filmmaker Preston Sturges, is the author of a new detective… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

P.G. Sturges has led many lives. Sitting on a bench on a warm weekday morning outside the Page Museum in Mid-Wilshire, he elaborates on a few: Navy submarine crewmember, Christmas tree grower, screenwriter, metrologist.

Now, at 57, he's added novelist to the résumé, with the release of "Shortcut Man," a hard-boiled mystery with a comic (or, at least, ironic) edge. Narrated by Dick Henry, known as the shortcut man because of his ability to cut to the heart of a problem, it unfolds, as such works tend to do, in a peculiarly Los Angeles sort of netherworld, suspended between wealth and want and full of corruption on every side.

The plot is simple: Dick is hired by a porn producer named Artie Benjamin to find out who's been sleeping with his wife. The catch? The party in question is Dick himself. "One day," Sturges recalls, "my wife called and said, 'I just heard the most interesting story, about a detective hired to find himself.' That was the seed."

This was in the mid-1990s, and Sturges first wrote the story as a screenplay. He'd been trying to make it in the screen trade for nearly a decade at that point, since the end of his naval service in 1985.

"I always thought I'd get around to writing," he says, his voice soft and slow. He's wearing a black suit, Ray-Bans and a porkpie hat — trying to look the part of a tough-guy novelist, he acknowledges — but his affect is gentle, benign. "Then I made an illegal left turn and had to go to traffic school."

At traffic school, he met a producer who asked him, "That name. Are you related? Do you write?" Yes, he answered to both questions. Yes.

The name is Preston Sturges, master of the screwball comedy, the author's father, for whom he was named. He died when his son was six.

"I didn't know him," Sturges says. "I just have one or two memories: I remember walking, holding his hand, and I remember that he took me on a set and into a hangar where there was a plane."

For many years, he used his full name — "in the Navy, no one knew who he was" — but shifted after deciding that "the name belongs to him." As for his legacy, it is, as is perhaps inevitable, the work.

"I love his movies," Sturges explains. "My primary knowledge of him is through his films. His comedies were never mean. He was benevolent to his characters. I'm glad that he holds me to a higher standard."

Such a standard is evident in "Shortcut Man," which Sturges infuses with not only humor but also affection for his characters, even when their behavior is out of bounds.

This is especially true of Dick, who we meet as he's executing an eviction notice on "a professional nonpayer of rent." It's a brutal business, and Dick does not shy away from it, bringing in his enforcer, Rojas, to trash the joint.

At the same time, the character operates according to his own morality, a noirish kind of code. "He's honest with himself," Sturges says. "He's not pretending to be anything else."

Divorced, living apart from his children, drifting through a world that is often wicked and full of desperation, he is, at heart, a survivor, a man who daily sees the worst of people and now must struggle to make his peace.

Here we have one of the central conventions of the genre, the moral ambiguity on which so much hard-boiled fiction relies. It's the key to Chandler, to Ross Macdonald, but for all the defining power of these writers, Sturges does not necessarily see himself in that lineage.

"I've read all of Arthur Conan Doyle and G.K. Chesterton," he says, "and in the modern age, all of Michael Connelly" — but more to the point is the connection between him and his character.

As an example, he cites the story that helps establish Dick at the start of the book. Lest there be any doubt about its significance, it appears in a chapter called "The Inciting Incident," and involves Dick, as a young submarine sailor, threatening a fellow sailor after he finds his gearshift stolen and installed in the other man's car.

"That happened to me," Sturges says with a quiet insistence. "I had to take care of it or let myself be pushed around." As he talks, his voice hardens slightly, in the way, one imagines, of his character. Beneath the calm exterior, there's a toughness, or maybe it's a matter of self-reliance, a pride in his ability to look out for himself.

In a lot of ways, this comes back to Sturges' experience, to all those many lives. On the submarine, he worked as a nuclear power operator, and, like "all the guys behind frame 57" — the part of the ship devoted to propulsion — he "took great pride in never knowing where we were."

There's a bit of bravado to such a statement, but even more, it's a matter of self-knowledge, of identifying what you can and can't control. That's as true of his life now as it was then, and it infuses the way he thinks about his work.

Already, there are plans to publish a second Dick Henry novel next year; a third will follow after that. In the meantime, Sturges works for the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Corona as a dimensional metrologist ("I make sure various tools are in calibration," he explains), and writes every day.

"To me," he says, "being a writer is one of the great professions because you have to bring your full self to bear." He looks out across the sun-swept morning toward the La Brea Tar Pits, then takes off his sunglasses to reveal a pair of pale blue eyes.

"I have," he continues, "a great ambition within me. Dad died when he was [60], so I look at that as a benchmark. There are happy, hopeful days."

david.ulin@latimes.com

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