Monday, March 1, 2010

Frames: a Valentino mystery by Loren D. Estleman

Valentino is an archivist with UCLA's film preservation department. Looking for a new place to live, his realtor shows him an old movie house up for sale. When he finds a cache of twenty-four film cans labeled Greed, it seals the deal. Valentino just may have discovered the Holy Grail of silent film on his hands: the original, full-length 8- (or 10-) hour cut of Erich von Stroheim's masterpiece (basically a filming of Frank Norris's classic novel McTeague in its entirety).

Needing help with the possibly volatile silver nitrate stock, he approaches his mentor, Professor Broadhead, who loans Valentino his intern, a junior copyright-law student named Fanta. When they look deeper into Valentino's new home, the trio locate a walled-off hidden room containing a Prohibition liquor stash and eighteen more film cans.

Oh, there's also a dead body, but reporting the death would make the theater a crime scene, and make the film evidence, endangering its longevity. So, they try to hide the film from the police. But when the investigating detective learns of its existence, she gives Valentino three days to make a copy on safety stock, or she'll send a cruiser to pick up the film — and him, for obstructing justice.

Three days isn't nearly enough time to do the job, literally impossible given that each frame of the forty-two reels has to be copied individually, so the only other option left to Valentino, Broadhead, and Fanta is to solve the case themselves in the next seventy-two hours. (The "film detective" gets to try on some real gumshoes.) Meanwhile, Valentino is being visited by the ghost of Erich von Stroheim, who is rather determined that his kindling be saved.

While author Loren D. Estleman's P.I. Amos Walker's adventures fall solidly on the hard-boiled end of the mystery spectrum, Frames tends toward the opposite, "cozy," end. There's only one murder, and it happens fifty years before the story begins. In fact, Valentino, Broadhead, and Fanta will be lucky to discover if the murderer is still alive! But classic film fans will eat this one up: Estleman has loaded his characters' dialogue with film trivia and fascinating information about film preservation, including the five stages of decomposition of silver nitrate film stock (the source of the moniker "silver screen").

This otherwise laid-back undertaking (apart from the suspense involved in whether the film will survive the storytelling) results in an emotionally intense denouement (at least as performed by William Dufris in the audiobook version of Frames) that is a surprise given all that happened before. With the addition of a romantic subplot with a crime scene investigator, the book is quite a pleasant and educational read, and I'm already looking forward to the next book in the series, Alone.


David Cranmer said...

That is a fantastic plot. I enjoy Mr. Estleman's short stories in AHMM but have never read a full length novel. Sounds like a terrific place to start.

Craig Clarke said...

Estleman certainly knows his film history. Funny, but the only other book of his I've read (and I'd forgotten this until now) was also film-related: The Rocky Mountain Moving Picture Association.

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