Written by Loren D Estleman — For many years Estleman has alternated between writing Westerns and writing his Amos Walker novels. We reviewed the most recent of the latter, Burning Midnight, last year. More recently he has started a new series about the ‘film detective’ Valentino. Alive follows Frames and Alone, but it’s certainly not necessary to have read those books to enjoy it.
To bring you up to speed, Valentino is employed by UCLA as a cinema archivist. His job is to find and procure lost celluloid for the university. A film obsessive, he has also bought the Oracle Theatre to renovate – a relic of the golden age of Hollywood which has fallen into disrepair. He works with the eccentric academic Professor Broadhead and their film studies intern Jason. Lost film doesn’t just have a cultural or artistic value, it can be worth a great deal of money, and for wealthy private collectors there can be some prestige associated with having particular pieces in their collections.
One of the great lost films is thought to be Bela Lugosi’s unsuccessful screen test for the monster in Universal’s Frankenstein. Lugosi was a huge star after playing Dracula, but his test was apparently so awful that the studio heads ordered the film be destroyed. Ultimately the part went to Boris Karloff who enjoyed a long career whilst Lugosi died in obscurity, his bitterness leading to drug addiction.
Valentino is called in the middle of the night by his old friend Craig Hunter, a fading action star whose career and marriage have hit the skids on account of his own demons. Valentino thinks he’s being hit up for a loan and hangs up. When the cops arrive at his office the next day investigating Hunter’s murder, Valentino’s guilt means he has to solve the crime himself. First port of call is Mike Grundage, owner of the bar Hunter’s body was found in. Grundage is suspected of being a mob boss, and is the son of a famous Hollywood union boss who was investigated several times for racketeering. The fact that Hunter had both arms broken before being beaten to death, supposedly a Grundage trademark, is even more suspicious.
Valentino can’t get past his lawyer Lysander, and the only other clues are some books about Lugosi and Karloff that Hunter had been reading recently. Gradually Valentino realises that Hunter had a line on the famous screen test and was trying to find a buyer. But its value meant he was in over his head, and he was killed. When Valentino receives the can of film through the post – Hunter’s last act it seems – he has to solve the mystery before he becomes the next victim.
The Valentino mysteries are a change of pace from the author’s more hardboiled Amos Walker PI series. There, the subplot is often about municipal corruption in Detroit and Walker is suitably cynical, as traditional PI literature demands. Valentino is a more amiable protagonist, an optimist and a dreamer even. The author exploits the opportunity to throw in lots of Hollywood history, but never at the expense of your enjoyment. The Valentino books are reminiscent of Stuart Kaminsky’s superlative Toby Peters mysteries in this regard, though there the setting is modern day rather than period. The author’s love of Hollywood’s golden era is evident throughout the Valentino mysteries, but Estleman is too much of a pro to neglect the plotting and drama. Engaging characters, an interesting premise, fascinating movie history, and Estleman’s crime writing chops add up to a satisfying read.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars