`Frames' is something of a departure

May 14, 2008 10:07:04 AM PDT
Valentino is a movie archivist at UCLA, but his business card reads "film detective." His job: tracking down prints of old Hollywood movies before they deteriorate and are lost forever.

As "Frames" opens, Valentino has just sunk all of his savings, and then some, buying the decrepit Oracle Theater in the hope of restoring it to its Roaring '20s glory. As he and a couple of buddies poke around the basement, a wall collapses, revealing a hidden room. Inside, the least interesting thing is the human skeleton.

Here, protected from the elements for decades in the cool, dry basement, Valentino finds a stack of canisters containing Eric von Stroheim's 1925 masterpiece, "Greed."

A testament to von Stroheim's towering ego, the original film ran eight to 10 hours, although no one could be exactly sure because MGM had sensibly cut it to two hours for theatrical release. The rest, it had been long assumed, had been sent to the incinerator.

As the canisters in the hidden room reveal, the assumption was dead wrong. The find is historic, but there is the little matter of that human skeleton.

Valentino calls the police and then spirits the canisters away to the UCLA film lab before the authorities show up. But when the skeleton proves to be a murder victim, the police get curious about what has been taken from the hidden room, and threaten to arrest Valentino unless he turns the "evidence" over to them.

Valentino knows that once the film is exposed to the elements, it will deteriorate rapidly. So he and his buddies set out to solve the murder themselves before the police raid the film lab and seize "Greed."

That's the premise of "Frames," the 60th book by the prolific Loren D. Estleman. The novel is something of a departure for Esleman, whose previous work has consisted of crime novels, critically acclaimed westerns, and a gritty series tracing the criminal history of Detroit.

"Frames" is more of a puzzle mystery reminiscent of the work of Agatha Christie, with Valentino in the "Miss Marple" role of amateur sleuth. Although the book might disappoint fans of Estelman's hard-boiled novels, this well-crafted book could win him an entirely new audience.

Estleman first introduced Valentino in a series of short stories for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and promises that "Frames" is the first in a series of novels featuring the "film detective."

As with every Estleman novel, "Frames" is written in crisp, vivid prose, the characters well-drawn. And the author's meticulous research of movie history adds another layer of richness. If the book whets the reader's appetite for more information about Hollywood history - and it just might - Estleman has included an eight-page bibliography listing films, books, film guides and scholarly articles on the movie business and film preservation.