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Frames (Valentino Mystery Series #1) [NOOK Book]


Enter Valentino, a mild-mannered UCLA film archivist. In the surreal world of Hollywood filmdom, truth is often stranger than celluloid fiction. When Valentino buys a decrepit movie palace and uncovers a skeleton in the secret Prohibition basement, he's not really surprised. But he's staggered by a second discovery: long-lost, priceless reels of film: Erich von Stroheim’s infamous Greed.

The LAPD wants to take the reels as evidence, ...
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Frames (Valentino Mystery Series #1)

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Enter Valentino, a mild-mannered UCLA film archivist. In the surreal world of Hollywood filmdom, truth is often stranger than celluloid fiction. When Valentino buys a decrepit movie palace and uncovers a skeleton in the secret Prohibition basement, he's not really surprised. But he's staggered by a second discovery: long-lost, priceless reels of film: Erich von Stroheim’s infamous Greed.

The LAPD wants to take the reels as evidence, jeopardizing the precious old film. If Valentino wants to save his find, he has only one choice: solve the murder within 72 hours with the help of his mentor, the noted film scholar Broadhead, and Fanta, a feisty if slightly flaky young law student.

Between a budding romance with a beautiful forensics investigator and visions of Von Stroheim’s ghost, Valentino’s madcap race to save the flick is as fast and frenetic as a classic screwball comedy.  A quirky cast of characters, smart dialogue and a touch of romance make this Estleman's most engaging and accessible novel to date.

At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Having appeared in 10 short stories in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, self-described "film detective" Valentino, who works as a film archivist at U.C.L.A., makes his novel-length debut in the engaging first of a new series from Shamus-winner Estleman. Valentino stumbles on the find of a lifetime when he inspects the Oracle, a decaying 1920s movie theater he's considering purchasing. An abandoned storage room contains reels of film that may be the only surviving prints of Erich von Stroheim's legendary epic, Greed. The further discovery of a skeleton of unknown vintage in the old building complicates matters. Aided by academic colleagues, Valentino tries to eat his cake and have it, too, by cooperating with the police inquiry into what might be a case of foul play without revealing the existence of the film reels, which he fears might be damaged if seized as evidence. While the lighthearted tone is far removed from the gritty realism of the author's Amos Walker series (American Detective, etc.), the versatile Estleman has crafted yet another intelligent page-turner. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Valentino is a UCLA film archivist with a passion for the silent screen. When he buys a decrepit movie theater in West Hollywood, he gets much more than he expects-a skeleton in a hidden Prohibition-vintage basement and a stack of priceless film reels of Erich von Stroheim's legendary Greed. The sale of the film to UCLA's archives will finance his theater's restoration, but the LAPD confiscates it as evidence when Valentino reports the skeleton. Fearing the cops will destroy the fragile film, he enlists the help of his mentor, the famed scholar Broadhead, and the two play detective to identify the skeleton and retrieve Greed. Along the way, Valentino falls in love with a lovely forensic investigator, is haunted by the ghost of the infamous von Stroheim, and finds the murderer with the help of a studio costume mistress. In this new series launch, prolific four-time Shamus Award winner Estleman has scripted yet another wacky comedic mystery that begs to become a feature film. His snappy dialog, feisty characters, Hollywood lore, and gentle romance make this his funniest to date. Recommended for all mystery collections.-Susan Clifford Braun, Aerospace Corp., El Segundo, CA
—Susan Clifford Braun

Kirkus Reviews
Wherever it is, he goes. Whenever it's buried, he digs. Whatever it takes, he does. Estleman introduces an amiable new sleuth in an offbeat new series. Meet Valentino, the "film detective." You'd better call him Val, since he divulges his surname only under bureaucratic duress-to renew his driver's license or buy airplane tickets. Employed by the Department of Film Preservation at UCLA, he chases old celluloid. Whether it's Birth of a Nation or Steamboat Willie, if it's in danger of decomposition, vaporization or dissolution, he's after it with the tenacity of a hunting dog. It's a living, but clearly Val is movie-struck as well: "He couldn't act, direct, or write screenplays, but he could Dumpster-dive with the best." So it figures that when he needs a place to live, he buys The Oracle. Once a gorgeous example of the opulent age of movie theater architecture, The Oracle is now a ruin. When his hard-selling realtor calls it "a fixer-upper," Val knows better but can't resist. His purchase is fraught with unintended, mind-boggling consequences. In a hidden room, he finds the remnants of a silent-film classic along with the remnants of an old, cold murder case. To save the first, Val must somehow solve the second. A bonbon that can't be expected to grip like Estleman's edgier stuff (Gas City, 2008, etc.). Still, it's an entertaining journey, especially for movie buffs.
From the Publisher
"Frames is gripping entertainment. If you were watching it in a movie theater—a place for which Estleman has a palpable affection—you'd look down in shock to find you'd unconsciously consumed your entire (large size) popcorn.” —Lawrence Kasdan, Academy Award-nominated Director and Screenwriter

“Estleman has laid claim to a fresh new franchise. It’s a pleasure to see the care and cunning he’s invested in this book. My hat’s off to him.” —Sue Grafton, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“Loren Estleman marvelously mixes movies and mayhem in a way sure to please film buffs and mystery fans alike. Frames is another winner from a master.” —John Jakes, #1 New York Times bestselling author

"Set in modern Hollywood, Frames should appeal equally to Loren's many hard-core noir fans as well as to new readers looking for great entertainment, accessible and sympathetic characters, and, of course, a cracking good mystery. Estleman is a national treasure, and Frames just may be the vehicle that finally gets the word out to the mainstream." —John Lescroart, New York Times bestselling author

“From screening rooms to board rooms, exploding celluloid to fire-eating cops, this marvelous tale delivers the ride of a lifetime.” —Gayle Lynds, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Spymaster

“Mystery, movies, and a sleuth named Valentino—crime doesn't get much better than this. Estleman's one of the best in the business—and this series nails his name on the marquee in bright lights.” —Linda Fairstein, New York Times bestselling author of the Alex Cooper mysteries

“Break out the popcorn! Mystery fans and old-movie fanatics will love Frames. A delightful double feature of vintage Hollywood murder and hilarious present-day shenanigans. The snappy dialogue alone is worth the price of admission.” —Deborah Donnelly, author of The Wedding Planner Mysteries

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429930956
  • Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
  • Publication date: 8/31/2010
  • Series: Valentino Mystery Series , #1
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 472,605
  • File size: 328 KB

Meet the Author

LOREN D. ESTLEMAN has written more than sixty novels, including the recent American Detective, The Adventures of Johnny Vermillion, and Nicotine Kiss. His work has earned him four Shamus Awards, five Golden Spur Awards, and three Western Heritage Awards. He lives in Michigan with his wife, author Deborah Morgan.
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Read an Excerpt



YOU COULDN’T LIVE a linear life in Hollywood. Everything was a special effect.

One moment there you were on your fleet of telephones, bellowing at brokers and bank managers, a gravel-voiced captain of industry in a screwball comedy, and then your vision swam and someone made broad circling motions on a harp, and the next moment you were lying on a stingy mattress in a rancid hotel room with a revolver in your hand.

“Tragic case,” the realtor said. “Are you familiar with the details?”

Valentino nodded and took a hit from his five-dollar cup of coffee. He and the woman were standing in front of a bas-relief in bronze of Max Fink’s bald sad face on a plaque in the crumbling lobby of The Oracle, a ruin left over from the lost ancient civilization of Hollywood. The floor was littered with horsehair plaster and shattered chestnut shells, the plunder of some squirrel cineaste.

“Tragic, and not uncommon. He wasn’t the only entrepreneur of his time to get caught in the pinch between the Wall Street crash and the talking-pictures revolution.” He smiled apologetically at the realtor, Anita Somebody. “I’m a bore on this subect. Ask me how to spell DeMille and I’ll recite his complete filmography.”

She hesitated just long enough to convince him she didn’t know DeMille from Deliverance. She was a carefully preserved blonde in her forties, and Valentino knew her story without asking: She’d come out from Omaha or someplace like that twenty years ago, hoping for a role on L.A. Law, and when that missed the mark and she couldn’t get work in commercials, it was either realty or prostitution. Prostitution didn’t come with a dental plan. She looked obscenely well pressed in her agency blazer and tailored skirt among the rat droppings. “It’s what you call a fixer-upper,” she said.

“It’s what I call Ground Zero.”

The grand foyer was a jungle of exposed wires and broken fretwork. An ambitious spider had erected a web of Babylonian proportions across the marble staircase and pigeons fluttered to and fro among the copper coffers in the ceiling. How the building had managed to escape demolition in a city of soaring property values and cheap Mexican labor was one for Charlie Chan.

Valentino, who knew less about construction and repair than Anita knew about Cecil B. DeMille, said, “Explain to me again why you brought me here. I’m looking for a place to live, not a lifelong hobby.”

“The budget you gave us presented challenges. This neighborhood’s zoned commercial and residential. No one seems to know just where the break is. Developers are reluctant to make an offer until the county board straightens it out, and the owners are anxious to sell. I’m afraid it’s either this or Oxnard.”

“I can’t afford it.”

“You haven’t heard the asking price.”

“I don’t mean that. I love these wonderful old barns; they’re in greater danger of extinction than the spotted owl. If I bought it, I’d feel obligated to restore it to its original splendor. Did I mention I’m on salary at UCLA?”

Her lipstick smile was firmer than the foundation. “Why don’t you postpone your decision until you’ve seen all there is to see?”

“Well, I guess I can afford a tour.” Saying it, he felt an intoxicating mix of anticipation and surrender. History was his weakness and his calling.

Max Fink’s very public dream of 1927 turned into a hangover two years later, but by then everyone else was too busy taking aspirins to notice.

Fink had stumbled into millions in 1912, when he rented out his candy store in Brooklyn evenings and weekends for the exhibition of silent motion-picture shorts. When he came by one night after closing and saw how many people had lined up to pay to see painted Indians chasing covered wagons across the New Jersey countryside, he evicted his tenants, bought a projector, struck a deal with a local photo-play distributor, and went into show business.

When Thomas Edison sued his moviemaking competitors for infringing on his patent, Max Fink fled with them to Southern California and invented Hollywood. Along the way he stopped at choice locations to purchase vaudeville theaters in financial trouble and converted them into movie houses. Fifteen years after he sold his last Jolly Roger, he invested his profits in the stock market and used his credit to build a glittering chain of motion-picture palaces from coast to coast, saving the biggest and best for Los Angeles.

The Oracle as sketched by the architect was a Balinese-Turkish-Grecian temple, with a mild Polynesian influence and bits cribbed from Moorish Spain, Renaissance Italy, and the Gaiety Music Hall in Flatbush. Seating was designed for five thousand, with space in the pit for a hundred-piece orchestra. Fink commissioned a four-manual Wurlitzer pipe organ to accompany the action on-screen, a half-ton chandelier, and plaster Pegasuses to flank the grand staircase rising to the mezzanine. When word reached H. L. Mencken, the curmudgeonly magazine mogul quipped, “It just shows you what God could accomplish if He had bad taste.”

Then The Jazz Singer, the Warner brothers’ last-ditch attempt to rescue their studio from bankruptcy by introducing songs and spoken dialogue to the silent screen, opened to delirious throngs at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Overnight, Hollywood was forced to shut down its pantomime productions. Soundstages were erected, theaters were wired for speakers, and audiences were permitted to hear their favorite matinee idols speaking lines instead of having to read them on title cards. All this expensive retrofitting led to a recession in California. Reluctantly—agonizingly—Fink told his contractor to reduce the size of the orchestra pit and reconfigure the auditorium to seat a paltry eighteen hundred customers. Construction in six cities was postponed until the industry could catch its second wind.

“It was like when the dot-com bubble burst in the nineties,” Anita explained, in the singsong tone of a museum tour guide. “Millionaires found themselves lining up for free soup at Salvation Army missions. There was a song—” She broke off, stuck for the title.

“‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’” Valentino finished. “It was about a busted railroad baron; but it applied to the Hollywood elite two years before the Depression hit New York.”

“Maybe I should keep my mouth shut and leave you in charge.” Anita’s relentlessly chipper tone fell short of covering her impatience.

“Sorry. I did warn you.” He reached out to stroke a crushed-velvet seat—and put his thumb through the rotted fabric. They were in the auditorium, a vast ruined chamber where the ornate brass sconces had been scavenged for scrap, leaving gaping holes in the exquisitely molded plaster.

In spite of the cutbacks, the completed Oracle was a marvel. Fink had reduced its scope, but steadfastly refused to skimp on material or workmanship. Its marquee towered forty feet into the sky, lit by sixteen thousand electric bulbs, with colored searchlights swiveling and crossing swordlike beams far above the red-tile rooftops of Golden Age Hollywood. Attendance at the premiere of The Hollywood Review of 1929 shattered every record set since Ben-Hur three years before.

Six months later, Max Fink was broke.

After the stock market collapsed in ’29, he was forced to sell his theater chain to mollify his creditors. It was a temporary reprieve. In 1933, sick, penniless, and stripped of all his delusions, one of the industry’s great visionaries put a pawnshop Colt to his head and blew out his brains in a dollar-a-week flophouse, two blocks down from a line of customers waiting to get in to see Mae West in a personal appearance at The Oracle. A friend who had lent him money to complete construction paid for his burial in Forest Lawn. Charlie Chaplin was among the pallbearers, who outnumbered the other mourners two to one.

“There’s a quaint legend connected to the place,” Anita said. “On certain nights you can see Max Fink’s ghost roaming the aisles, counting the house. Bless you!”

Valentino excused himself and blew his nose into his Starbucks napkin. “I guess dust and mold spores don’t affect spooks the way they do us mortals.”

It was just an old building after all. Neither its backstory nor the glamorous phantasms that had glided across its screen, fly-specked now and hanging in tatters, countered the tragic truth that it should have been put out of its misery decades ago.

But Valentino was a film archivist, trained to see past such flaws as broken sprocket holes, scratched frames, and the insidious orange creep of decomposition and appreciate the glory of America’s first true native art form. He found the moth-eaten carpet and water-stained gilt no less exotic than Egyptian treasures half buried in Sahara sand. There in the elephants’ graveyard of spoiled dreams he experienced the same electric thrill he’d felt the day his mother took his hand and led him into a movie theater for the first time. But that had been only a whitewashed cinderblock box in Fox Forage, Indiana. This was Max Fink’s fabled Oracle, home of Hell’s Angels, 42nd Street, Stagecoach, and Anna Christie. He could almost hear Garbo’s smoky voice, saying—

“There’s a hidden staircase here.”

“What?” He had to put on the brakes to avoid rear-ending the realtor. He’d followed her up the center aisle, across the apron of the orchestra pit, and back along the right wall toward the exit to the lobby. She’d stopped abruptly to pry with her fingers at a seam in the plaster. A six-foot-tall rectangular section came away, squealing on parched hinges. Dust motes swarmed up the current of air in a narrow shaft filled with steps.

“It leads to the projection booth.” Anita frowned at a split nail. “Fink’s crew seem to have gone to a lot of trouble to keep it out of sight.”


“I beg your pardon?”

“They called Hollywood the Dream Factory. A dream doesn’t work if you know where it’s coming from.”

“Do you teach film?”

“No, the university pays me to look for them.”

“Do they go missing often?”

“Since the beginning. Ninety percent of the movies made before the advent of sound are lost, mostly due to deliberate destruction back when no one thought there would be profit in reissuing them. Carelessness and neglect has seen to the rest, and it’s not only silents. Poor storage conditions have decimated films made as recently as the nineteen fifties. My job is to scrounge up what’s left before it vanishes.”

“Huh. Well, all this gussying-up is lost on me. I just like to pop in a tape or a disc and veg out on the sofa in my sweats.”

He smiled. “Bet you liked Moulin Rouge.”

“Oh, yes. It was fabulous! Now, watch your step. I’m sure these stairs aren’t up to code.”

In the stairwell he thought he smelled stale popcorn and the residue of thousands of Lucky Strikes and nickel cigars. It was probably dry rot, or possibly phantom Fink sneaking a snack and a smoke. Valentino had to turn sideways to avoid brushing the walls and soiling his shirt.

The booth was actually a spacious loft, with a square opening overlooking the remains of the screen. He remembered that The Oracle had been one of the last L.A. theaters to show 3-D movies during the brief heyday of Bwana Devil and Dial M for Murder. That process had required twin Bell & Howell projectors, each the size of a VW Beetle. They’d have needed plenty of room, but not this much. He could have put all the furniture in his apartment into this space.

Anita seemed to sense the source of his curiosity. She pointed. “There used to be a wall there. On the other side was a sort of lumber room where they stored posters and props. I probably don’t have to tell you they had live shows during the Depression, to entice people who wouldn’t normally spend money on a ticket. In the sixties this was a hippie commune.” Her voice dropped to a whisper on the last two words, as if she were referring to a colony of lepers. “There’s a bathroom through that door, which the projectionist used. It’s a comfortable bachelor arrangement. Is there a Mrs. Valentino?”

He wondered if she was hitting on him, then discarded the thought as embarrassingly narcissistic. In any case a romantic relationship with someone who thought Moulin Rouge was fabulous was doomed.

“I barely have time for a private life, much less marriage. What’s in there?” He pointed to a shallow alcove whose back wall curved to follow the shoulder of the roof.

“Just some cans, the flat kind they put film in. They’re empty.”

He felt a flash of disappointment. He’d once found two hundred feet of Theda Bara’s Cleopatra being used to demonstrate a toy projector in a junk shop in Oklahoma City, and on first glance that place had held far less promise than this. “Is it all right if I look?”

“Be careful. The floor’s in bad shape.”

The enclosure was six feet wide and four deep. Stepping inside, he felt with his feet for the joists beneath the curling plywood.

“It was plastered over too,” she said, “probably to conserve heat.”

The air was stale but dry and cool. There was no light fixture. He peered through the dimness, groping at built-in wire racks holding jumbles of film cans that made a tinny empty noise when he moved them, a melancholy sound. He placed a hand against the cantilevered back wall to support himself and reached down to tug at the first in a row of cans standing on edge on the bottom rack.

Something thumped inside.




Copyright © 2008 by Loren D. Estleman

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.

Edited by James Frenkel

A Forge Book

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 22, 2013

    Fun look at film preservation

    I found the characters engaging and effortlessly learned about saving old films in this cozy. The appendix with ways to learn more about film preservation and the silent age in Hollywood was a welcome surprise. I am ready to order the next Valentino murder mystery.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2008

    Offbeat Mystery

    Estleman is a versatile writer. He writes a lot but I can only recall a few clunkers. Here he delves into film history with a likable crew of oddball characters. The book is over too quickly. I hope there is more of Valentino and his comrades in the future. How about a collection of the short stories he has written about the character?

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    This is an entertaining Hollywood mystery

    Calling himself the ¿Film Detective¿ Valentino earns a living as film archivist at UCLA. He considers buying the Oracle, a dilapidated theatre that back in the 1920s was a showcase. However, as he inspects the crumbling edifice, he finds several reels of Erich von Stroheim¿s classic epic, Greed though long lost to the ravages of time, stupidity, and avarice.--------------- However, his discovery takes a setback when Valentino also uncovers a skeleton. He would prefer to ignore the old bones and run off with the film, but his conscience will not allow Valentino to do so. He calls the cops informing them of the human remains, but remains silent re the reels out of fear the evidence takers will damage the valuable work, which would put his conscience in suicide mode.---------- This is an entertaining Hollywood mystery as the lead character hides evidence from the police rationalizing why he did it. The cold case investigation is fun to follow as the Film Detective tracks cinematic clues one frame at a time while also rationalizing again why he is making inquiries. Apparently Valentino has appeared in short stories, but in his novel debut he seems complete and able to hold together an enjoyable somewhat movie fun fluffy whodunit.---------------- Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 11, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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