Pity poor Rudolph Valentino. No, not that one. It’s not just the name and the visage that brings to mind the defining heartthrob of the silver screen, Valentino also happens to make his life in the film industry, which means he’s forever correcting people in the industry who take his name at face value. One of the few UCLA film archivists laboring to preserve Hollywood’s silver screen past, Valentino has made film his life. At the opening of Loren Estleman’s series launch, Frames, he has purchased the Oracle, one of LA’s last crumbling movie palaces, so he’s committed his wallet to film history as well. But things begin to look up when Valentino stumbles upon a number of ancient film canisters in the theater enticingly labeled Greed—as in Erich von Stroheim’s epic, 42-reel masterpiece, thought lost for decades after von Stroheim’s bosses ruthlessly cut the movie to a more palatable two hour run time. The discovery of a complete version of the film would go a long way towards preserving the run-down Oracle. Alas, Greed rarely touches anyone without consequences. Next to those cans is a very dead body, and while Valentino spirits Greed out of the theater in the interest of preserving it, the LAPD is very keen to get their hands on the film as a possible motive for murder. With the possibility of handing over the delicate (and possibly literally explosive) Holy Grail of lost films to an untrained LAPD looming, Valentino and his motley band of film buffs have a couple of days to solve the crime and ensure Greed stays with them. Easy, right? Oh, and it looks like the Oracle is haunted. By the ghost of Erich von Stroheim.
Estleman has made his name with a diverse list of mysteries and westerns and racked up the Shamus and Golden Spur awards to prove it. Frames, however, speaks more to the film buff than the mystery reader. Obviously Estleman is a film fan; his friends chide Valentino not to bore the LAPD detective Harriet Johansen, with whom he’s forged a connection, with an avalanche of film lore. Estleman could be easily accused of the same; the mystery is usually a distant after thought to the snippets of film history that really drive the book. Thankfully, it’s interesting stuff and grounded in fact. The early history of film gets short shrift to that of sound films, and much of Hollywood’s output was destroyed either intentionally or accidentally; much of Valentino’s (and Estleman’s) concern gets into the particularly violent tendencies of silver nitrate film. The tumultuous early years of the industry could easily supply the plots for a number of novels or true crime. Other than Valentino, his fellow film archivist Kyle Broadhead and budding lawyer/actress Fanta (yes, her real name), characters tend to be lightly sketched. In keeping with the theme, Valentino enlists his friends on a final caper that is part screwball, part Keystone Kops that still manages to unmask the killer. Estleman provides an extensive list of film guides, additional books, films and other resources in the print edition that should prove catnip for the film buffs.