FRAMES, ALONE, and ALIVE! by Loren D. Estleman 

New York: Forge Books, 2008, 2009, 2013. $14.99, $15.99, and $24.99.

Equally adept at short stories and novels, Loren D. Estleman has proven himself a master in many genres--hard-boiled P.I. with Amos Walker, historical police noir with the Four Horsemen of Detroit during World War II, tense westerns with Page Murdock, U. S. Deputy Marshall, Sherlock Holmes novels, and many stand-alone novels. In the Valentino series, which began in short stories, Estleman turns to dove-grey screwball absurdity to provide an amateur sleuth series that eschews all the conventions of that sub-genre.

Valentino is a film detective for UCLA’s Department of Film Preservation. He and his mentor, Dr. Kyle Broadhead, plus their flinty secretary Ruth, are the only members of this department, and they are conveniently located in a renovated power plant. Never giving his first name, Valentino is a mild-mannered man with a love of old movies and a penchant for finding dead bodies between the silver nitrate and the safety stock. 

The screwball comedy begins with Valentino buying the dilapidated movie house The Oracle. The film acquisitionist wants to restore it to its Art Deco splendor. Easier said than done because of numerous factors, not least of which is the parlous state of his finances. It reduces him to living in the projection room. This while elephant Valentino puts under the loving, restorative care of Leo Kalishnikov, the flamboyant but straight architect and designer. The place, with all its demands become a running gag through the series, but it is most important in this first novel, FRAMES, where Valentino finds two things in his new basement--a dead body and a full edition of Erich von Stroheim’s GREED, a lost silent masterpiece, reduced from ten hours to two and a half, with the cut footage destroyed by a janitor. An intact edition would be worth a fortune. Who’s the stiff? What connection does he have with GREED? How did he die? misadventure or murder? At this point, the LAPD enters the investigation and wants to impound the film as evidence. A forty year-old cold case isn’t be high on the list of priorities, and the silver nitrate stock is old and highly unstable. It won’t survive the evidence room. Commanded by Von Stroheim’s ghost to save his film, Valentino has to do an end around the cops with Broadhead and UCLA’s help and to identify the deceased and his killer. This merry chase leads Valentino, Broadhead, and Broadhead’s improbable young girlfriend, Fanta, to the Motion Picture Country Home.

ALONE has less overt screwball comedy and more serious overtones. Matthew Rankin, wealthy retail magnate, holds a fancy-dress party to celebrate Greta Garbo’s one hundredth birthday. Rankin’s late wife Andrea was a close friend of Garbo’s, and he retains his wife’s collection of memorabilia. He promises Valentino, attending with his girlfriend, Harriet Johansen, that Valentino will acquire Garbo’s first appearance on screen, a bit in an advertisement called HOW NOT TO DRESS--if Valentino helps him dig up some dirt on his assistant Roger Akers. When Valentino arrives for a meeting with Rankin, he ends up the witness to a killing in self-defense--blackmail over a Garbo letter that suggests a love affair between Andrea Rankin and Garbo. Beverly Hills’s rumpled, badly dressed homicide detective, Lt. Ray Padilla (and yes, readers will think he’s a surlier Lt. Columbo) doesn’t believe it. He also hates movies. Valentino sympathizes with both Garbo’s desire to be let alone and Rankin’s desire to protect his wife, but when the letter proves to be a fake and there’s a theft from the Swedish Military Archives where Garbo’s papers are stored, Valentino wants to get to the truth in an apparently closed case. An encounter with a corrupt Los Angeles building inspector teaches him the power of blackmail and revenge. Valentino’s investigation not only angers Lt. Padilla but leaves Valentino’s relationship floundering. Although he solves the crime and gets the film for UCLA, Valentino comes damned close to finding himself alone.

Screwball absurdity returns in ALIVE!, which centers on the screen test of Bela Lugosi for the role of Frankenstein’s monster, a part that went to Boris Karloff. Lugosi’s screen test, awful as it was, is still a part of Hollywood history. If Valentino could put his hands on it, UCLA’s Department of Film Preservation would have a great artifact from which to profit handsomely. Unfortunately, getting it means dealing with real gangsters, who may have killed Valentino’s estranged friend, Craig Hunter, a booze, drugs, and gambling addict. However, once he’s dead, Valentino feels considerable guilt and vows to find the killer--even before the San Diego cops come to see him. He interviews all the suspects and turns up one the cops haven’t--J. Arthur Greenwood, a secretive and obsessive collector. He’s joined by another richer-than-Croesus collector, many decades Greenwood’s junior, Mark David Turkus, who employs the shark-about-town Teddie Goodman to find lost artifacts like Lugosi’s screen test. Aided as much by Jason Strickley, who has a band of friends Valentino calls the Steampunks, as Kyle Broadhead, who’s marrying the flaky Fanta, Valentino faces real danger from mobs goons and is subjected to real arrest for impeding an investigation. 

As with any cozy series, the sleuth is an amateur, not affiliated with police except in the most peripheral way. The majority of the violence is off-screen. Yet, Estleman adds P.I. elements as well those of the police procedural. Valentino isn’t really an amateur; he hunts down lost film with focus and skill and in the face of significant opposition. He has a strong moral and ethical core he won’t violate. He’s willing to go to jail for the films. When Valentino interferes with a murder investigation, the cops are willing to put him in jail for it. They’re ready to pull Harriet Johansen in front of a disciplinary hearing, or drop a word to her team captain for spilling information to Valentino. However, there are significant differences amongst the behavior of Sgt. Clifford, Lt. Padilla, and Sgt. Gill and Detective Yellowfern. With the last two, the reader gets ‘good cop, bad cop’, a convention as old as Hollywood, but it also gets turned on its head. Every time, Valentino swears he’ll not interfere again. Readers and cops alike know that’s not going to happen.

The Valentino series is marked by a genuine passion for golden age Hollywood and the magic of old movies. With a deceptively easy narrative style and snappy dialogue, Estleman imparts considerable technical and historical information. At the back of each novel is an extensive author’s note and bibliography for those who are as in love with old cinema as Estleman. However, it’s a truism in both film and fiction, that the greatest strength can be the greatest weakness. That rings most true for ALONE, the limpest of this trio. Like FRAMES, ALONE derives from one of the Valentino short stories, which may explain why It has a convoluted, circular plot, which is too clever by half. For a reader without an obsession for Garbo, the whole thing falls flat. Unlike FRAMES or ALIVE!, it’s also not screwy enough in its comedy to carry the absurdist audience--although Fanta’s backstory changes significantly between FRAMES and ALIVE!.

Estleman writes a good story no matter the mystery sub-genre in which he writes. In that, he has much in common with Howard Hawks, great director. The Valentino mysteries may be his lightest and brightest mysteries, but they are well-written with strong, entertaining characters. For old movie fanatics, it’s hard not to love Valentino—or wish to be Valentino.

 Copyright KG Whitehurst