Monday, May 25, 2015

"Just Us, the Cameras, and Those Wonderful People Out There in the Dark"

By Loren D. Estleman (b. 1952).
Crippen & Landru Publishers.
2011. 210 pages: 14 stories.
For sale HERE.
He dreamed he was riding in a beer truck with a pistol under his arm. The cases in the back contained reels of film, not beer. He was bootlegging them across the border between the past and the present, and Father Time was waiting for him at a roadblock with a tommygun that ticked like a clock when he squeezed the trigger.
Valentino is a die-hard classic movie fanatic who through no coincidence works at UCLA's Film Preservation Department searching for, compiling, and restoring old films. Occasionally a movie thought to be "lost" turns up (possibly as many as 90 percent of all motion pictures made before nitrate film was phased out are considered irretrievably lost); when that happens, Valentino soars into the stratosphere (both literally and figuratively) in his worldwide hunt for rare films.

But sometimes his elation is checked by having to deal with the owners of these "lost" treasures, and that's when it gets really interesting. ("Interesting" as in the Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times.") In fact, on rare occasions it can get downright dangerous. At such times the words on Valentino's business card ("Film detective") take 
on a whole new meaning.

Loren D. Estleman's smooth prose truly enhances these stories. Every aspiring writer would benefit from studying and emulating it.

For mystery fans a note: These stories are not classical fair play whodunits, but they are fine examples of crime fiction.



Preface: Author Estleman reminisces about his childhood love affair with old movies and how his character, Valentino, came to be.

(1) "Dark Lady Down" (1998):

Valentino makes an appointment with an actress whose star has long since faded. She has what are perhaps the only surviving prints of one of her movies, and as a film historian Valentino is anxious not to let an old classic film fade into oblivion. When he gets to her expensive villa, however, he learns she is dead of an apparent drug overdose—but there are several incongruous details that make Valentino suspect murder . . . .

(2) "The Frankenstein Footage" (1998):

Valentino receives an unwelcome phone call from a washed-up actor-friend-turned-pest who's constantly bumming money off him. Valentino cuts him off, unaware that his bothersome friend will soon be murdered, Mob-style, and he himself will become embroiled in a devious plot involving a quarter-million dollars, screen test footage for the original Frankenstein film, a damsel in distress hanging Saturday cliffhanger-style from the ceiling by her ankles, and two plug-uglies straight out of Central Casting.

(3) "Director's Cut" (1998):

According to the auteur theory, the earliest directorial efforts by established film directors can offer insights into their development as artists. When Valentino contacts a retired motion picture director hoping to purchase the man's student film for preservation by UCLA, he's brusquely rebuffed. Soon thereafter, the director's yacht—or the remaining splinters of it—is found off the coast of Australia, his body never being recovered. Years later, however, that student film resurfaces, so to speak, putting Valentino squarely in the sights of a narcotraficante kingpin who enjoys giving helicopter rides to people with the door open—and no seatbelts.

(4) "The Man in the White Hat" (1999):

An over-the-hill Western movie star engages Valentino to track down a stag film featuring his wife and popular co-star of dozens of oaters. She's dying of cancer; he tells Valentino about how harmful it would be to his charitable efforts should the stag feature be released. But the more Valentino digs into this case, the less he likes it . . . .

(5) "Picture Palace" (2000):

Valentino is in Florence trying to persuade a legendary Italian film director to donate a copy of his masterpiece to the UCLA collection, but he meets with stern disapproval from the man's over-protective wife, who flatly refuses Valentino an interview. The celebrated director's grown-up daughter confides to Valentino her suspicions that something sinister is going on in that household; even though she and her father have been estranged from each other for years, she's concerned there may have been foul play. Valentino is skeptical—until he reviews a videotaped interview with the director . . . .

(6) "The Day Hollywood Stood Still" (2001):

Valentino has been negotiating with a young hack director about the rights to a classic sci-fi movie which his studio has green-lighted for a remake, when the schlockmeister is found dead, beaten to a pulp. This puts Valentino front and center as the prime suspect. His knowledge of film lore will be put to the test as he tries to escape the baleful notice of a young and anything-but-dumb police detective.

(7) "Greed" (2002):

Valentino is looking for a new place to live, and what could be better for a film buff than a movie theater? He eyes an old run-down movie house that's for sale but almost passes it up, until he finds a delightful surprise in the film vault: missing nitrate reels from an old von Stroheim classic. A little later, however, another surprise is discovered in the dilapidated movie palace, and it's far from delightful: a human skeleton, all that remains of a man murdered nearly half a century ago.

(8) "Bombshell" (2003):

Valentino is hoping to acquire a print of one of Elizabeth Taylor's old—and bad—films from a retired actress who had quit the movies due in part to being superstitious about the Hollywood "curse" on beautiful blonde actresses, like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, who mysteriously died prematurely. Valentino arrives at his retired friend's place, only to find her dead under circumstances nearly identical to those surrounding La Monroe's demise. But she's only the first victim of a serial killer whose apparently insane aim is to replicate the deaths of as many Tinsel Town blonde bombshells as possible.

(9) "Shooting Big Ed" (2005):

After seventy-five years in limbo, a never-released classic gangster film unexpectedly emerges; Valentino jumps at the chance to view this casualty of the Hays Office, but is even more delighted at the prospect of actually purchasing it for the UCLA archives collection. However, this particular movie has a baffling and somewhat sordid history connected with it: The man playing the mob boss was, as it turned out, in real life one of Scarface Al Capone's "proteges" from Chicago who just happened to land the plum role in a Hollywood feature, thereby rupturing his connections with the syndicate. Big Al was never known for his patience with insubordinate subordinates, so when our leading man suddenly went missing just before the film's release (along with thirty grand in cash) foul play was naturally suspected. Now, eight decades later, Valentino stumbles over a cold case involving a leading lady's rapid fade into obscurity and an actor's finest performance, not just on film, but of a lifetime.

(10) "Garbo Writes" (2007):

The famous Swedish actress Greta Garbo was an inveterate letter writer. One of her confidantes was married to the owner of a chain of department stores who failed to adjust to the disruptive economic impact of the new shopping malls. She has died, apparently of a heart attack, leaving numerous letters in Garbo's handwriting, as well as a short, believed-lost promotional film featuring Garbo in her very first appearance before a camera. It is the latter—Garbo's first film ever—that attracts Valentino's attention, as he tries to persuade the widower to donate it to the UCLA collection; but it's the former—Garbo's highly personal letters—that will trigger a double murder.

(11) "The Profane Angel" (2007):

The very first appearance of a famous Hollywood starlet (see "Garbo Writes") would be of special interest to any film buff, and Valentino is no exception. A silent feature with a youthful Carole Lombard previously not known to exist draws Valentino to the home of a sickly cigarette addict who not only claims she has the missing film but also—contrary to what history has recorded—that she is Carole Lombard.

(12) "Wild Walls" (2007):

Valentino wings it to Ireland in search of some Depression-era comedies that have miraculously managed to escape the cruel scissors of heartless film editors worldwide. The principal star of those comedies is now a wizened, almost humorless old man whose personal problems—acquisitive heirs and alimony payments to multiple ex-wives—have left him strapped for cash. However, before Valentino can clinch the deal there's a murder, and the former child star becomes the prime suspect.

(13) "Preminger's Gold" (2009):

Half a century ago a Hollywood movie production descended on Michigan's Upper Peninsula to cinematize a best-selling novel, Anatomy of a Murder. The director of the film, Otto Preminger, was infamous for being crude, lewd, and rude—yet brilliant in his own way. While the film was shooting in a small town on the U.P., a young indigene took a couple of hundred feet of home movies of the cast and crew. Now, fifty years later, the prospect of adding this background material to UCLA's Film Preservation collection has brought Valentino to Michigan to negotiate with the amateur photographer, who is now old enough for Social Security but clearly not content with his meager government pension. Soon enough, Valentino will become embroiled in a strange, apparently crack-brained scheme to recover nearly a million dollars in gold that legend says was looted from a local bank by none other than the Depression Era's public enemy number one.

(14) "The List" (2010):

Valentino is in Tijuana trying to purchase a collection of old—and not very good—gangster films produced in Mexico by an expatriate American director who had been driven from Hollywood because of his association with Communist front groups in the '30s and '40s. To his shock and dismay, Valentino learns the director is dead; among his few remaining effects Valentino discovers a faded old notebook written entirely in indecipherable code. Valentino doesn't realize at the time that he possesses something that could not only rewrite Hollywood history but also ruin the lives of many still working there.

- FictionMags has an Estleman bibliography HERE.

Category: Film detection

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