More from the three-outa-five good books on the writing lair’s to-be-read endtable…
Visitors here at “The Stiletto Gumshoe” know I’m a Loren D. Estleman fan, his long-running Detroit private eye Amos Walker series a reliable go-to refuge when I crave something hard-boiled (which is pretty often). Though more recent and anything but hard-boiled, Estleman’s “Valentino – Film Detective” series books are eagerly anticipated events for me, and Indigo (2020 Forge/Tom Doherty) didn’t disappoint. That this one reverently wallows in the retro danger and darkness of the postwar film noir milieu was just a bonus.
Officially, Valentino (no first name we know of) is a UCLA film department archivist. His real job is to track down lost films and memorabilia, while his real passion is the painstaking restoration (in baby steps, as his funds allow) of the Oracle, a shuttered Los Angeles movie palace where he also bunks down in the projection booth. In the course of six novels and one short story collection, Valentino’s acquired his own ‘Scooby Gang’ from among UCLA coworkers, the LAPD and the quirky contractors restoring The Oracle, and his unsought-after adventures have dealt with, among other things, the Holy Grail to horror fans (footage of Bela Lugosi in test makeup as the Frankenstein monster), compromising letters revealing a Tinsel Town doyen’s lesbian affair with a legendary screen goddess, a Roy Rogers & Dale Evans style western serial duo’s tarnished past, and even an unofficial role assisting the police when a serial killer replicates grisly cinematic deaths to murder modern-day ‘blonde bombshells’.
Here in Indigo, Estleman shares his obvious affection for classic postwar era film noir (even including fifteen pages of backmatter for the uninitiated) when a mysterious benefactor offers Valentino prints of Bleak Street, an unseen and presumed lost film shelved before its premier. Apparently Bleak Street’s leading man, Van Oliver, went missing, presumed murdered by the mob, his own links to organized crime a not-too-well-kept secret at the time. Unable to let a mystery go unsolved, Valentino’s soon digging into Oliver’s disappearance, the mystery going much deeper than originally expected, and prompting some powerful and very scary people to try to stop the investigation. If that means killing Valentino, so be it.
Unlike Estleman’s Amos Walker series, there’s no grit or hard-boiled cynicism here, much less the rusty dowdiness of Detroit, Michigan. The Valentino series goes light on gunplay, bloodshed and spiciness, providing, instead, truly fun and engaging 3-D characters that really grow with each novel, placing them (with Valentino at the center, of course) in genuine puzzlers. The novels are relatively short, quick reads, and leave me wanting more each time. And since the Valentino books seem to arrive two or even three years apart, that means I’m wanting for a looong time. If you follow the series, you’ve probably already read Indigo. But if not, I’d recommend getting the first (Frames, 2010) or the short story collection for an introduction. You won’t be disappointed.