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June 20, 2008

Frames

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Loren D. Estleman - 2008
New York: Forge Books

The concept intrigued me - a murder mystery involving a film archivist. The sleuth of celluloid has the singular name of Valentino, and his self-given job title is Film Detective. As far as crime fiction goes, compared to Chandler, Cain or Leonard, this is a softboiled. The audience for this book is probably a more general audience that looks for something diverting, but not too demanding. At the very least, Frames may help educate a few more people about the need for film preservation, and the labor involved in preserving films. In light of the recent fire at Universal studios, that the key incident in the book involves a fire at MGM makes Frames more timely.

For some film scholars, this may be the literary equivalent of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In this case, Valentino has bought an old movie theater and discovers film cans containing the complete version of Erich von Stroheim's Greed. An additional discovery is a skeleton in the theater's basement. The characters include an old professor of film history who only shows up at the first and last classes of the semester, a young female law student, and an aged secretary who was once pursued by David O. Selznick. The ghost of Erich von Stroheim also makes an occasional appearance.

There's name dropping of Quentin Tarantino and Charlize Theron, a small gag involving confusion of William Castle with White Castle, and the incorporation of familiar lines from other movies. When Valentino mentions his ghostly visitor, the response is, "You see dead people". As can be expected, there are several jokes at the expense of Valentino's name as well as discussion of the silent film star. For myself, it was the discussion of how lost movies are sometimes found, as well as the processes involved in preserving and duplicating nitrate film that was of greater interest.

Estleman is reportedly working on a second Valentino mystery. After this first book, I can only guess that Valentino finds a complete version of The Magnificent Ambersons as envisioned by Orson Welles. Or maybe Valentino finds Murnau's Four Devils. If we're lucky, maybe Valentino can solve a mystery that has vexed me for years - how Norman Taurog beat Joseph von Sternberg, Lewis Milestone, Clarence Brown, and even Best Picture director Wesley Ruggles for an Academy Award.

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Posted by peter at June 20, 2008 07:40 AM

Comments

how Norman Taurog beat Joseph von Sternberg, Lewis Milestone, Clarence Brown, and even Best Picture director Wesley Ruggles for an Academy Award.

That one's puzzled me for years too. Must've been the damn kid crying that did it. Another puzzle for me is how did von Sternberg never win period and how did a nomination elude him for The Scarlet Empress?

Posted by: Jonathan Lapper at June 23, 2008 03:19 PM

I just met John Taurog, Norman's adopted son here in Palm Springs. He has hundreds and hundreds of original photographs of his father and all of the film sets, along with all of the film stars of his father's day in various historic locations in and around Palm Springs. John's story is itself one that should be documented before he dies--he lives destitute here, with nothing but memories (and photos.) Any ideas?

Posted by: LYNN ANN BLADES at November 27, 2009 04:14 PM