Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura (hardcover, $23)

If you have tuned in to this review to find out the meaning of The Thief, I have an 80-page thesis you could look at. Just kidding. Your guess is as good as mine, and I will make some guesses under the heading "Spoiler."

Fuminori Nakamura has won a bunch of prizes in Japan, including the Oe prize, awarded to the best literary work by a young author, for this book.

The narrator of The Thief is Nishimura (mentioned only once), a pickpocket in Tokyo. After he participated in a puzzling home invasion in which the purported motive for breaking in felt spurious, Nishimura hightailed it out of Tokyo to lay low for a while. Nakamura doesn't tell us the whole story of the robbery until about a third of the way through, and that story sets the stage for the surreal nature of the rest of the book.

After Nishimura hesitantly returns to Tokyo, he is spotted by an old acquaintance and the jig is up. Kizaki, the gangster/nemesis/devil who masterminded the robbery, has Nishimura in his power again. Nishimura would run but he has come to know a 10-year-old boy who reminds him of himself at that age, a budding pickpocket. He must mentor the boy and help the boy's mother, even though it means acquiescing to Kizaki.

The last part of the book, fulfilling the quest Kizaki has set before Nishimura, is very clever. This is more than a crime novel, however. The question of fate keeps popping up. Is it Nishimura's fate to be where he is, or is it someone else's fate to control him? Why is Nishimura satisfied to live as he does, depending on the contents of whatever wallets he picks? What is the meaning of his life? This must be the literary part for which Nakamura won the Oe award.

The philosophizing and ambiguous ending add an interesting layer to an underlying smart and engaging crime story. The tower that Nishimura has glimpsed at points in his life represents the unattainable "normal" and respectable life he has fallen further away from as he leads his life of petty crime, to the point that he no longer sees the tower. At the end, when Nishimura is about to give his life for the boy and his mother, the tower appears again; he has redeemed himself. Is he saved by the coin toss? Isn't that the ultimate negation that fate is written for us, that a coin tossed toward a stranger may change the life that Kizaki claims he has written for Nishimura?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Hypnotist, by Lars Kepler ($16)

The Hypnotist is another compelling import from Sweden. This is the first book translated into English of a series written by the husband-and-wife writing team of Alexandra and Alexander Ahndoril.

Dr. Erik Bark is the hypnotist of the title. Joona Linna is a police detective in Stockholm. Although about 80 percent of the book is about Erik and his family, this is the first book in Joona's series.

Right from the start Erik takes center stage as he's roused from his sleep by a call from a colleague at the hospital. A boy has been brought in, and he is on the verge of death. Someone has viciously murdered his parents and one of his siblings, and he is in a coma. Joona would like Erik to hypnotize the boy to find out who hurt him and where to find his older sister, whose body was not found with the rest of the family. Erik, however, is not interested in hypnotizing anyone. He gave that process up ten years before. It is not until way into the 500-page book that we learn why Erik made that decision.

It is difficult to discuss more specifics about the book without giving something away, because Kepler presents one plot twist after another. It's a book that goes deep into Erik's relationship with his wife and son. Erik is still atoning for past sins to his wife. His son has a rare blood disorder. And Erik does not practice hypnotism anymore. These elements of his life become more entangled and important as the story goes on.

Joona is portrayed as a smart guy who likes to cut corners. No one can argue with success ("I told you so," he likes to say), so he's not castigated for his unconventional approach. He and Erik work to solve all their mutual mysteries, even though Joona doesn't know Erik's complete story.

Erik's arrogance struggles with his compassion, but by the end we learn the depth of his self-awareness and humility. Joona is a less defined character, although there are a few scenes that introduce his personal life. If The Hypnotist is a psychological thriller and Erik provides the psychological part, then Joona drives the thriller part.

Almost every Swedish import has some comparison made between it and Stieg Larsson's influential works, but I'd say it actually applies to this book. Graphically violent and clever, it will remind you of what kept you turning the pages in the "Girl" series.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Hunting Sweetie Rose, by Jack Fredrickson (hardcover, $25.99)

Jack Fredrickson has written three Vlodek "Dek" Elstrom books, two of which I've read and enjoyed tremendously. Fredrickson has the right mix of humor, good characters, interesting plot. It takes a while to brew this mix -- there have been three years between books -- but it's worth the wait.

Dek lives in a castle. Actually, Dek lives in a turret, the only part of the castle his grandfather finished, in a town just west of Chicago. The turret requires extensive work, which Dek accomplishes slowly as he can afford it. He has had to battle both the Rivertown town council who wants to zone him out of existence and his own impecunious state. Dek was once a high-powered investigator, but now he's grateful for the occasional case. His fall from grace came when he was accused of an indiscretion which he did not commit. Everyone heard the accusation, but very few heard the exoneration. Misfortune heaped upon misfortune, he and his wife divorced soon after the fall when Dek turned to alcohol while wallowing in self-pity.

That's the background. Now here's the current situation: A man in a limo hires Dek to investigate the death of a clown who fell from the top of a building while entertaining a crowd. The police say it was suicide, but the mysterious client hints otherwise.

Of course, it soon becomes something other than a clown falling off a building. With the help of his colorful old friend, Leo Brumsky, Dek's ex-wife, and a new -- and beautiful -- friend who happens to be a reporter, Dek soon finds something rotten in Chicago high society.

From tales of the antics of septuagenarian Ma Brumsky and her pole dancing friends to an explanation of why Dek needs to plant flowers on his jeep, Fredrickson's humorous touches never detract from the main storylines, but they're a wonderful addition. Here's a description of a business secretary Dek faces down:

She's a formidable, helmet-haired woman with a British accent and a Transylvanian demeanor. Her name is Buffy, and that is the only laugh she offers the world.

Then once he forges into the office's inner sanctum:

I sat down on leather taken from a burgundy cow.

From the description of a Chicago building called the Wilbur Wright:

Even though the Wilbur Wright was small -- ten stories is nothing in a city anymore -- the Wright brothers for sure would have been impressed. I was standing higher than they first flew, and I'd made the ascent without getting a single bug stuck to my teeth.

The humor balances the poignancy of Dek's own story and the tale of Sweetie Fairbairn.

If only Fredrickson's publisher would see fit to issue the Dek Elstrom books in paperback, it would be a perfect world.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Gerald Elias - a musical interlude (2/20/12)

Gerald Elias came by to celebrate his Daniel Jacobus series and to entertain us with music. Death and the Maiden will be released in paperback in a few months and his new book, Death and Transfiguration, is just on the horizon.

What started as a story to teach young students setting out on a musical career about the practicalities of surviving in the music world -- i.e., Devil's Trill -- has led to a new career in writing for Elias, one he juggles with his still vibrant life as a professional musician.

Here's some history of "Death and the Maiden," courtesy of Elias. It is the name of a string quartet piece by Franz Schubert. It was an expansion of an earlier, smaller work, "Der Tod und Das Mädchen," sung by a soprano. The soprano part is challenging because she must sing the parts of Death (low) and the Maiden (high). Elias recommended Marian Anderson's version. This soprano stuff is all an aside because Elias' book deals with a string quartet and that version of Schubert's work. The "intensity and relentless energy" the piece evokes lends itself well to a story of murder.

The world of the classical musician is inspirational, not just for the music but also for the scuttlebutt. Based on a true story of a fractured string quartet, Elias was inspired to craft a story that gives us a behind-the-scenes peek at that world.

Are musicians upset that Elias pulls the curtain back to reveal real human beings with real human motivations, good and bad, behind the music? No, he said, they feel a "weight lifted off their shoulders" that we readers might begin to glimpse the pressures and stresses under which they work.

Speaking of pressures and stresses, Elias said, "The most intense musical experience is playing in a string quartet; most implode after a few years." The Julliard and Guarneri Quartets are rare quartets that have stayed together, but even the Julliard has had many personnel changes over the years. The fictional quartet in Elias' book suffers from the dissent, diverse sensibilities, and dissonance that real quartets experience.

This contentiousness and conflict is almost inevitable, Elias said, because as students "we are taught to have our own musical personality." Then most musicians must work with a group of other musicians who've had the same training. It takes a certain kind of conductor to make everyone play well in the sandbox. Conductors evince either a firm hand or a mediating one, but if he or she doesn't have a clear vision of the end product, then the result is less than sublime. Elias cited Leonard Bernstein as a conductor with a firm hand and a huge ego to guide it, but, Elias said, "He could get away with it because he was brilliant."

Why did Elias retire? As a performer he wanted to bring something better to a piece each time he played it, to understand it more. After performing for several decades, it became harder for him to "actualize the music he wanted to play," said Elias' friend, fellow violinist, and musical compatriot for the evening, Andrew Ehrlich. Repetition wears a piece down and takes its toll over time, Elias said. He wanted to "make each piece sound as if it's the world premiere."

Does Elias suffer for his art? He played at the famous Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts for many summers. Weather, being a changeable force, sometimes provided soggy or cold evenings for the musicians to endure. Elias laughed and said, "That's part of the allure." He remembered one evening in the early 80s when the thunder and rain were so loud "the musicians couldn't even hear each other, and that made for a memorable experience."

How has Elias' protagonist Daniel Jacobus, a blind violin teacher, changed? He has mellowed over time, Elias said, and we learn more about him with each book, more about the tragedy that haunts him.

Did he get tired of touring? "I'm kind of a restless person," he said, "I like traveling." (Although a recent four weeks on a book tour were a little tiring.) Because of the peripatetic nature of his work, he meets a lot of musicians and can usually strike a common note with them, either personally or through mutual friends.

That night in the little bookstore with nice acoustics for the piece, it was a transcendent experience to hear Schubert's "Death and the Maiden," reconfigured for two violins, performed by Elias and Ehrlich. They gave us a different way to hear the piece and a deeper understanding of its richness.

You, too, can hear this music via links on Jerry Elias' website, www.GeraldElias.com.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Dana Stabenow - a visit (2/15/12)

Dana Stabenow was in town today, and she stopped in to visit with us to celebrate the release of her 19th Kate Shugak novel, Restless in the Grave. It's also notable because Kate meets Liam Campbell, the star of one of Dana's other series, for the first time.

As a native of Alaska, Dana has had to weather a few winters there. Do Alaskans ever get "cabin fever"? After she stopped laughing, she said, "That's why so many Alaskans go to Hawaii in the winter!" And since she's not one of the ones heading to Hawaii, that's why Dana watches the Youtube video of "Boat Drinks" done to the Jimmy Buffet tune.

But is the real nature of the Alaskan winter changing where she lives? "I'm no scientist," she said, but then went on to tell about how the winters lately have been so different and bizarre, e.g., four Chinooks (unseasonably warm winds) so far this winter. One Alaskan village has fallen into the sea and been rebuilt four times. That had Dana digressing to tell us that the hunter/gatherer culture of Alaska had no concept of private property or permanent encampments. Western influences settled the nomadic people, such as the group that inhabited the unfortunate village that fell into the sea.

Has Dana ever been asked to tone down her opinions or political viewpoint? She laughed and said that people have come up to her and said they hated her books and would never read another, but no, no one has told her to stuff her politics. Furthermore, she said, "I reserve the right to state my opinion in any book with my name on the cover."

Dana seemed surprised that people found humor in her books. She has sometimes much later re-read a passage from one of her books and found it funny, but she doesn't intentionally place humor in her stories. Humor, she said, "either happens or it doesn't; if you force it, it will show."

Surely she had one funny story about flying over Alaska. Well ... there was the time she caught a ride on a small plane that was giving some tourists a scenic tour. ("They probably had never ridden in anything smaller than a 757," she said.) The pilot jammed both feet on the rudder, folded his arms and leaned back to give the tourists his spiel. If the tourists worried about the pitching and yawing the plane did, we're not sure it was allayed any when Dana leaned over and told them that they were lucky they had a pilot who could fly the plane and talk at the same time.

Early in Dana's career she wrote science fiction, and she still loves the genre. "Star Trek" and "Star Wars," we suggested? Yes, and -- she almost, but not quite, squealed* -- the new "Battlestar Galactica."

So what about the brave new world of technology and social media? Does she have qualms about being in front of the computer so much? It's how she writes her books, she said. She has to discipline herself to break away from tweeting and FB-ing to write. No worries there, since her mother had instilled in her the "Great Protestant Work Ethic."

The Alaskan culture Dana depicts so well in her books seems to share characteristics with other cultures. "People are way more similar than different," she said. Families are families with their attendant drama and caring.

Finally, this is for those of you who have viewed the link she provided to the "[Stuff] people in Anchorage (never) say" video on Youtube. The "Ace's game" refers to a semi-pro hockey team, currently with a winning record. She said she gets asked that a lot. (Here's the address if you want to know more about what people in Anchorage (never) say: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpL6C0YZUYc.)

* Frankly, Dana does not seem like the squealing type.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Matt Ruff - an interview (2/13/12)

He may physically live in Seattle, but Matt Ruff's imagination is in another dimension. Talking to Matt Ruff is talking to a man with a LOT of ideas. We had the opportunity to grill him on February 13, 2012.

Slow books and inspirations

Since 1988, Matt Ruff has produced six books, unlike a lot of authors, especially in the mystery series business, who produce a book a year. As a matter of fact, Ruff stated that he had been working on the basis for his latest book, The Mirage, as far back as 2006. He originally envisioned a television show, à la "24," but nothing came of it back then. Perhaps the time is ripe now for a television deal, especially with shows like "Lost," "Heroes," "The X-Files" and "Alcatraz" having set the stage for odd and engaging premises. But unlike these shows, Ruff wants a finite storyline, not something that peters out. He says his plot line would be written while knowing how the series would end. You've got to have the answers before you can begin. One the best shows that does this, in his opinion, is "The Wire."

If it feels write ...

Practicing what he preaches, Ruff knows at least the first three chapters and the last chapter -- and sometimes even the last line -- of whatever book he's writing. He begins with a "high concept" first, then fills the characters in later. It's important to him that his characters feel real.

Accessible make-believe?

Like his popular Bad Monkeys (c2007), The Mirage twists and turns at the end. It's hard to explain that this doesn't mean his works are parodies or too outré; in fact they rely on good characterizations, pop culture references and every-man touches to ground them. Pop culture is important to him personally and as a way to make his works accessible. He wants readers "to identify and care about them."

Politics schmolotics

Although Bad Monkeys contains a reference to 9/11, that's merely a way of anchoring the book in time. For The Mirage, 9/11 is everything. Yet Ruff shied away from making it a polemical or galvanizing political work. In the final analysis, The Mirage is a book written by an optimist about what people from different backgrounds do when then meet. (See my blog review of The Mirage for more specific information on the book.)

Bad Monkeys & more inspiration

But let's back up and start with Bad Monkeys and the pre-Lizabeth Salander, kick-ass character of Jane Charlotte. (Jane works for a secret organization that disposes of evil people.) Ruff said he was inspired by visual works like "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" and "La Femme Nikita." He works hard to create "characters that haven't been done to death," and Jane "was a fun character to write."

Who ya gonna write for?

Telling a good story is the prime objective for Ruff. And he's got to be entertained by the story himself. He is his own target audience. He keeps in mind that the story can't "be good for everyone." He's interested in the small story and small decisions that people make that ultimately provides a turning point with large repercussions.

Let's talk more about "The Wire" and the solitary life of a writer
Three pretty famous crime fiction writers lent their writing skills to the scripts for David Simon's "The Wire": Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, and George Pelecanos. Richard Price is one of the authors whose style most impresses Ruff. He envies Price both his style -- "a cut above" -- and his involvement in "The Wire" ("I wish I had the guts to be like him"). However, for him, writing is a solitary profession. Ruff laughs at the thought that people might think the Seattle authors hang out together. At the same time, Ruff told an engaging story about learning swordplay with fellow Seattle author Neal Stephenson.

And now for a commercial
How has Ruff managed to go his own way? Has he felt pressure from his publishing company to be more commercial? He's grateful that his publisher accepts him for who he is. His books can't be lumped together under one genre and Ruff delights in experimentation.

A few last words about his new work, The Mirage
Ruff "wanted to do something exciting and engaging but that would deal with moral and political issues from a different angle." Faith, he says, means something different to everyone, so he especially wanted to show the diversity of Islam. "Part of the joy of writing is getting to world build," he concludes.

(author photo © 2006 Michael Hilliard  -- ed. note: Ruff still looks like this!)

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Mirage, by Matt Ruff (hardcover, $25.99)

The story begins a few years after the World Trade Center's twin towers fell, destroyed by airplanes flown by terrorists. The Homeland Security Department has been created, and our hero, Mustafa al Baghdadi, works for it, along with his friends and colleagues, Amal and Samir. Mustafa's wife, Fadwa, died in the chaos of that day, November 9, 2001.

11/9. Not 9/11. Why? Because the twin towers were in Baghdad, not New York City. The UAS -- United Arab States -- were attacked, not the USA, which doesn't exist. North America, where the United States of America should be, is a jumble of independent countries, including the country of Texas. Everywhere in North America are Christian fundamentalist and crusader groups and political parties. It was one of those groups that propelled the planes into the towers in Baghdad.

Although there are occasional comic references to things like Six Flags Hanging Garden Water Park and Green Desert instead of the singing group Green Day, Matt Ruff doesn't cross the line into parody or slapstick. He wants to show that what we consider to be all-American references are now UAS references. What was once USA is now UAS. That's not to say that the switch is complete. The UAS is almost all Muslim, but Christianity is tolerated, Middle Eastern Christians being subjected to the same suspicion that Muslims receive in the USA today.

The UAS also still has Saddam Hussein, a gun-toting, high-level gangster. It also still has Osama bin Laden, the fanatical right-wing head of al Qaeda. In the name of protecting national interests, the UAS is no better at resisting the temptation to torture its suspects than the USA is. Familiar names dot Ruff's landscape: Uday and Qusay, Nouri al Maliki, Muqtada al Sadr, David Koresh, Timothy McVeigh, Tariq Aziz, and a rumpled Donald Rumsfeld, whose final scene seems pathetically appropriate. Other real people are referred to obliquely: the Quail Hunter and the man from Crawford, Texas, for instance.

So what is really different?

Mustafa, Samir and Amal take their jobs seriously. They try to play within the rules, which is more than can be said of the corrupt Baghdad police, but they eventually find that the rules are changing. Captured terrorist artifacts indicate a bizarre scenario: The twin towers that were destroyed were in New York City and the terrorists were Arabs. Mustafa and others are occasionally dizzy, accompanied by a sense that something is wrong. The trio first accidentally and then purposely dig to find out who or what is behind the hidden world.

Although The Mirage progresses from a spy thriller to an increasingly out-of-kilter storyline, it's never frivolous. Ruff manages to hold a serious tone throughout. His final chapter provides a moral to his fable: Be careful what you wish for.

This is a solid, thoughtful, well-researched novel by someone whose head must visibly crackle and sparkle with all of his creative thoughts.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Damage Done, by Hilary Davidson ($7.99)

This book won a lot of accolades and the Anthony Award for Best First Novel. It wasn't until three-fourths of the way through the book, however, that I was sold on it.

Travel journalist Lily Moore is called back from Spain to New York to identify her sister's body, found drowned in the bathtub of her apartment. It's more than upsetting when Lily finds that the body is of a stranger, a woman who had been pretending to be Claudia, her sister, for the last few months, including running up credit card bills in her name. Who is the woman and where is Claudia? Answering these two questions defines the rest of the book.

There are many other characters, some of them more unsavory than others, from Claudia and Lily's lives whom we meet as Lily searches for clues. My favorite is Jesse, Lily's gay photographer friend. He is sympathetic, has a moving family history, provides the right amount of support for Lily, and carries a gun but speaks softly. Lily's ex-boyfriend, a wealthy businessman, is plain creepy. Claudia's ex-boyfriend, another wealthy entrepreneur, is a little less creepy, but he's right up there.

The reason I had trouble getting into the book is that Lily is a hard person to like, and not because she had run far away and left her sister to her addictions (heroin, methadone, whatever). There was something so passive-aggressive about Lily and her relationships with people, including the aforementioned creepy boyfriend. Undoubtedly, there is something broken about Lily, too. Later a potential new boyfriend for Lily enters the picture, and I wanted to say, "Why? What do you see in her?"

Well, for starters, she apparently resembles Ava Gardner, the 1940s-50s screen godDESS. (I could hear the lush music from the "Laura"-type movies of that era playing in the background while I read this book.) And Claudia was no slouch either. Maybe that's enough to explain the romantic mayhem that follows both of them.

What the last fourth of the book provided was a sterling drawing together of all the pieces. Lily sloughs off her torpor/simmering rage/misdirected sentiments and gets down to it.

I felt that this book was written for a younger generation's sensibilities. There's a dark, sophisticated, vaguely louche quality to the characters, good and bad. The book begins from a point of view that I couldn't relate to immediately. There's an underlying set of unarticulated ground rules, a copy of which I didn't get in the mail. Why would I be more likely to apprehend Elmore Leonard's Raylan country than Davidson's New York? I think it's a question of human motivations. One set I get, the other I have to work at.

I rarely read the previews for the author's next book invariably stuck at the end of paperbacks, but I wanted to know if Lily's character would be carried forward. Indeed, the next book finds Lily and Jesse in South America. Now that concept makes me want to read it. Lily (and author Hilary Davidson) IS a travel writer. I miss Lyn Hamilton's travel mysteries, and while Davidson's writing is certainly darker, I welcome the opportunity to become an armchair traveler again.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Wild Thing, by Josh Bazell (hardcover, $25.99)

I loved Josh Bazell's first book, Beat the Reaper. I awarded it an MBTB star. It was original and funny. It had footnotes. Footnotes!

Unfortunately, in Wild Thing, the epilogue, footnotes, and appendix are far more interesting than the story, which continues the adventures of Beat the Reaper's Pietro Brnwa/Peter Brown/Lionel Azimuth, a mafia hitman/doctor/bodyguard.

Some kind of man-eating monster may be haunting a fresh water lake in the Minnesota wilderness. Azimuth is hired to protect a paleontologist who suspects the creature is a dinosaur. There was the potential for primo goofiness, but the writing was awkwardly coarse, and I really disliked Violet Hurst, the paleontologist and Azimuth's love interest. And who were all those superfluous people in the monster safari party and why should I care?

What did I like? Bazell has a wicked sense of humor and it still shone through, mostly in the aforementioned footnotes. The appendix gave the background for many of the side issues Bazell brought up in his story. Sarah Palin appears as a bizarre character in the story, and the appendix says she may be nuts but not quite in the way depicted in the fictional portion of the book. (I found that highly entertaining.) The epilogue should have been the story -- but then the book would have been four pages long. But they would have been four really good pages.

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins (hardcover, $17.99)

Okay, the madness has now passed. I've read all three "Hunger Games" books.

In each subsequent book, the clever, trap-eluding games part has diminished, until it barely exists towards the end of Mockingjay. What's left is bleak and unromantic, but generally thought-provoking. Two-thirds of the book is really a roll call of all the people who've died or are going to die on behalf of the rebel cause. The only bright spot is provided by Buttercup, Prim's indomitable cat.

There's not much left of heroic, thinks-well-on-her-feet Katniss Everdeen, our heroine of The Hunger Games. She's physically and mentally damaged from all that has happened to her. In fact, she's nothing but a symbol in Spandex, hoisted away by rebel handlers at the slightest whiff of danger. She trades more active involvement in the rebellion for the lives of her family and few friends -- and the right to kill President Snow when the time comes. However, it turns out she can't help her friends or herself very well.

There are still clever ploys and heroic actions to move the plot along, but this was definitely the most somber of the books. We are meant to think about the cost of both compliance and rebellion, how much individuality to trade for the common good, how we should never turn a blank face to suffering, and what loss is acceptable for a greater good. We are meant to see that small acts are sometimes as great as big actions, that the worst behavior is no action at all.

I'll leave plot specifics to other reviewers because you deserve to be as surprised at the plot twists as I was. Collins has created an unusual book, one whose ambiguous morality calls for mature readers. Years ago, The Lord of the Flies engendered the sort of discussion that I'm sure Collins' trilogy will inspire.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tribulations of a Shortcut Man, by P. G. Sturges (hardcover, $24)

I loved this book! P. G. Sturges has created an original character. He also sports an original style, with an intoxicating mixture of gladness, badness and sadness. Bonus: The chapters have titles! This is the follow-up to The Shortcut Man ($15). I'm sorry to say that I have not (yet) read it, but Tribulations stands alone quite well.

Dick Henry is a fix-it man in L.A. for people with problems, and we're not talking a leaky sink or an overgrown hedge. He gets his clients to their desired ends, not all of which are legitimate, by bypassing normal methods and channels, thus creating a shortcut. That's all right, Dick Henry is not quite legitimate, nor is the odd bunch of people who helps him. Among his colorful associates, I'm most fond of the world's stinkiest man. I will say no more. You will enjoy meeting him and finding out how he fits into Dick's world.

Here's Sturges introducing his Shortcut Man:

The thing was this: Kiyoko [estranged girlfriend] believed all human suffering sprang from the denial of death. That denial took the form of greed, anger, and foolishness. And I agreed. Hell, I couldn't agree more. But before everybody wised up there'd be problems here and there. That's my line. My name's Dick Henry. They call me the Shortcut Man.

All is not raucous and irreverent humor, however. There are poignant moments as well, and they mostly have to do with Dick's children and an old girlfriend, perhaps the one true love of his life.

The majority of the story is concerned with the problems of Judge Harry Glidden and his TV star wife, Ellen. They are in a financial pickle and their solutions involve, willingly or un-, Dick Henry. They were the highest of the high and now they are on the verge of becoming the lowest of the low. Once catered to and fawned over, soon Harry and Ellen will be lucky to own a hotplate. Their plans to remedy their situation are incredibly stupid and hilarious. Let's just say that Mensa won't be knocking down their door.

One more funny tidbit from the book. At one point, Dick must pretend to be a gas repairman, and he uses the name "Dave." His cohort forgets and calls him "Dick," so he is henceforth forced to use the name "Dick-Dave."

So some of the book is first-person Dick Henry narrative and some of it is third-person, the latter mostly used to follow the increasingly unsteady footsteps of Ellen Glidden. Sturges writes well from both viewpoints.  

Here's one last bit to give you a taste of what's in store:

Kiyoko [although my two quoted passages star Kiyoko, she really isn't in the book] was on my mind. My on-and-off girlfriend, Kiyoko was a Buddhist who hadn't yet come to appreciate my line of work. Last night, to the accompaniment of Japanese imprecations, she'd thrown me out of her house. It didn't help that I'd laughed at her insults. I couldn't help it. I understood only a few words of Japanese. Forku, steaku, porku, elephanto. Americanized additions to the language. Not the words she had chosen from the other side of the kitchen island. So I laughed, hoping to bluff my way through; a sitcom, a new take on the Odd Couple.

You. Must. Read. This.