INDIGO: A Valentino Mystery by Loren D. Estleman

New York:  Forge Books, 2020. $25.99

I confess—I love Valentino mysteries, and I love film noir. I don’t go to church on Sunday; I go to Noir Alley on TCM. Loren D Estleman loves old Hollywood with a barely restrained passion. He has produced five earlier Valentino novels and a collection of Valentino short stories. In INDIGO, it feels as if Estleman channels Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir and the host of Noir Alley. Not all noirs are genuinely black. Valentino mysteries are essentially cozies with more than a touch of screwball comedy. Only THE BIG CLOCK (1948) succeeded in that stunt, and it appears to be Estleman’s inspiration for INDIGO.

In a surprise party, Ignacio Borzal gifts Valentino a spectacular picture for his restored cinema, the Oracle. Borzal further gifts him with with the film BLEAK STREET, un film noir, that never saw the silver screen because its star, Van Oliver, disappeared during post production. Everyone assumed he was killed because he was connected with both the New York and Los Angeles mob. After a sufficient period, the LAPD put the case on the shelf; Hollywood, the film. Once Valentino hands the film cans off to the lab at UCLA, Henry Anklemire in the PR department hands Valentino the case—to solve for the promotion buzz. After seventy years, what is Valentino supposed to find?

Trouble is what, for there are no secrets in Hollywood. Valentino’s investigation reveals, at first, little more than what the cops found, but films are switched, an old actress is snuffed, and Valentino himself is nearly run over in Los Angeles. To top it all, his film finding and buying nemesis, Mark David Turkus with his Theda Bara vamp, Teddie, in tow, comes out of lurk mode to reveal his own deep, secret reason to deep six—again!—both Valentino’s investigation and BLEAK STREET itself.

INDIGO is a lark for old movie buffs in general and noir aficionados in particular. Valentino fans will be delighted to find Valentino’s usual crew in fine form. Valentino is still dating Harriett in the coroner’s office, Ruth is still the sharp-tongued dragon lady of the department, and Kyle Broadbent is happily married to his former student Fanta. The film noir flourishes are everywhere. Each section of the novel is the title of a famous noir, one character bears a name reminiscent of one used in Max Ophuls’ CAUGHT (1949), and the dialogue has all the snap and charge one could and should expect from a good noir. Furthermore, the loving care Estleman bestows upon old Hollywood geography and architecture produces both a fine sense of nostalgia and a you-are-there feel.

Unfortunately, this novel lacks the one element that marks every film noir—desperation. Even THE BIG CLOCK, for all its screwball comedy, had a high degree of urgency and anxiety, even bite and sacrifice. INDIGO lopes along with a low level of tension. Seriously, how much can there be when all the principals in the original disappearance are either dead or well into their golden years? Even when Turkus shows up, he’s not quite the shark he usually is—even if his secret is classic noir. Teddie usually tries her best to play the femme fatale, but she is quiet here, which is a pity. I was most annoyed about the handling of the contemporary murder. It is a gruesome crime that should have more weight than mere misdirection.

Quibbles aside, readers will be amused by this generally well written romp through old Hollywood. Even if you have not read a Valentino novel—or short story—you will not have any trouble getting into this fun novel. It is a series of standalones in that regard. (I have not read four or five in the series, and I did not skip a beat.) As usual, there is highly informative author’s note and select bibliography at the back. Skip these at your own risk. I did get a sense, however, in the symmetrical nature of the story—opens and closes in the same type of scene, that this might be the end of the series. If so, then it is a good place to end, but I sincerely hope it is not the end of Valentino.

Copyright KG Whitehurst