The first two in the Valentino Hollywood Mystery Series
by Loren D. Estleman
Estleman is best known for his hard-boiled Amos Walker detective series, all set in Detroit—of which, I heartily recommend the first, Motor City Blue. (Most of these were written when Detroit was still a city.) He also straps on the Yeehaw! and pumps out a lot of pretty good cowboy stories.
Now Estleman moves as far West as he can go with his Hollywood series starring Valentino. Val, to his pals, is a film archivist—he calls himself a movie detective—and professor at a well known Los Angeles-based university. His wise-cracking older next-door-office neighbor Broadhead, who by the grace of tenure hasn’t published in years, still wins the admiration of a student named after a soda pop. The cynical, eavesdropping department secretary is old enough to have dated the Three Stooges.
Valentino is a romantic, and in Frames—presumably via the University of California’s generous compensation package—buys a rundown and abandoned movie house, which he intends to restore.
Construction begins and…out pops a skeleton! A victim of murder from the old days. Which wouldn’t be that exciting, except the carcass of an old movie lies next to the bones.
It’s Greed, the silent classic by director Erich von Stroheim (the butler from Sunset Blvd.). I say “classic”, but I’ve never seen it, though Estleman makes me want to, he even makes me long to.
The real-life story is that von Stroheim produced a ten-hour film, but his bosses forced him to cut it to just over two, so that it wouldn’t cause audiences to fidget. It is said that a janitor came across the cuts, mistook them for trash, and tossed them on the fire. Sorrow!
Until Valentino discovers a complete print, miraculously intact, stored in the bone-dry theater. Since the cans of film were with the dead body, the police want them. Material evidence! This causes conflict of the kind necessary to move thrillers forward. See, the prints have to be rushed to the preservationists before the moisture and smog of L.A. ruin them.
Val charms a CSI-type hot cop into giving him 72 hours to Solve The Crime. He also talks her into having a date.
Would it shock you to learn that he rescues the film, solves the murder, and gets the girl? Well, I won’t tell you, because that would spoil it.
What I can say, is that Valentino makes it out of book number one alive, propelled straight into number two.
As does Broadhead and everybody else we have grown to love. The old professor has a mysterious backstory, and to impress his young girlfriend, begins to write his memoirs. Valentino still has the theater, but repairs are draining his accounts. This is helped by the county building inspector, who becomes a sworn enemy, and who is a master at finding violations.
Val and his gal attend a Gretta Garbo look-a-like contest at department store mogul Rankin’s pad (notice the Hollywood lingo; pretty accurate, no?). When Rankin sees Valentino’s date, he faints, having mistook the fair Harriet (for that is her name) for the Real Thing, come back to life.
Turns out that Rankin’s dead wife was pals with Garbo, and the two used to exchange letters. Garbo asked that these letters be destroyed upon her death, and Rankin’s wife may or may not have complied with this request.
Rankin has an assistant who has presented his boss with a letter allegedly written by Garbo to his boss’s dead wife; that letter contains some naughty lines. To save his wife’s reputation, Rankin pays a regular bribe. Until the night of the Garbo party, when Rankin snaps and pumps one into his assistant.
Self-defense! Or is it? Are the letters real? How did the assistant come by them? Could Garbo have written such things?
Enter Lt. Padilla, a clip-on-tie wearing Beverly Hills Cop. Padilla thinks it stinks; Rankin’s story, that is. He is brash and dogged, and we always enjoy hearing him talk.
Valentino becomes involved because Rankin promises him a thought-lost copy of How Not to Dress, a commercial for a Swedish department store, and Garbo’s first screen appearance (when she was 16).
His desire to secure this film, intrigues with the building inspector, and twists in the mystery, are enough to keep us busy until the Dramatic Conclusion. Along the way we learn lots of movie history.
By all accounts, Estleman is a major sweetheart. Several years ago, I was in John King books and the clerk—who Estleman wrote into one of his Amos Walker stories—saw that I was buying several of his oeuvre. She told me that he would come in from time to time, sneak up to the shelves and autograph his books. He “sneaks” because he is shy.
You’d never believe it by reading his dialog, which is everything you look for in the hard-boiled genre.