It’s obvious Loren Estleman has a blast writing his new series about film archivist Valentino. If anything could be a fantasy for a massive film buff like Estleman, it would probably be a job as a “film detective”, tracking down old films so the prints can be salvaged for future generations. Even better, in this second outing, Valentino is restoring an old movie theater, although the correct term for it would be “palace”. Estleman really sparkles here. The book is filled with funny one liners that move along as quickly as an old Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell movie—sometimes you’re saying “Oh, I get it” a page later.
The plot concerns—and this is even better—Greta Garbo. Apparently a wealthy Garbo fanatic, Rankin, has been blackmailed by his assistant over a letter that illuminates a very close intimacy between Garbo and Rankin’s dead wife. This comes out at a Garbo themed party, where Valentino’s girlfriend’s Garbo outfit actually causes Rankin to faint. When Val returns later to talk to Rankin he finds him in the same room with his dead assistant, literally with a smoking gun. While it’s an obvious solution, the police have a hard time holding Rankin in jail, thanks in part to Val’s help in proving Rankin’s innocence. It’s not long before Val and his girlfriend are again having dinner with the man.
The side characters Estleman includes are really wonderful, and I wonder if a writer who hadn’t written as many books as Estleman has (over 60 and counting) would be able to include them so naturally and effortlessly in the story. There’s the secretary at Val’s office, so scary she files her blood red nails to a point; the police detective in his orange plaid polyester jacket; the Russian contractor—Kalishnikov—who is overseeing the restoration of the movie palace; and best of all, Val’s new roomie, an insomniac professor named Broadhead who is prone to making eggplant smoothies at three in the morning. Val’s moved in with him since the building inspector threw him out of his temporary—and illegal—living quarters in the theater.
While Estleman’s language has always been one of the delights of his novels, the humor here is so rich and luscious it could almost be eaten with a spoon. The plot is clever enough but it’s the characters and the humor that make the book a real standout. Only a total pro like Estleman could make it all look so easy. And only a total pro like Estleman could give something this light on the surface the serious underpinnings necessary to give the whole novel some resonance. It’s like finding a lovely dress—a cheap one won’t be lined; a beautifully made one will have a gorgeous lining. This book has the gorgeous lining.
Years of writing P.I. novels have made Estleman a dab hand at plots, ones that hold together and make sense. He’s even able to include some commentary—integrated into the story line—on the nature of celebrity. Garbo probably invented the paparazzi, and it was both her beauty and her quest for solitude that fired it up. And even better, while all the characters I mentioned above are delightful and funny, they also have the underpinnings: they are fully fleshed out characters, most especially the cop in the orange polyester. While Estleman may be revealing his true curmudgeonly nature in describing so lovingly his worship of the past, it’s not a knee jerk attitude, it’s an informed and valuable one. There’s a reason for his love of the past, and he makes an excellent case for it. He includes references and a Garbo filmography at the end of the book. If there’s a better Christmas present available this season, I’m not sure what it might be.