Thursday, April 07, 2005

Shooting Big Ed by Loren D. Estleman

“Shooting Big Ed” by Loren D. Estleman, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May 2005

This is another installment in the Valentino series. Valentino is Estleman’s “Film Detective.” The main character works as a film preservationist for UCLA and lives in a Golden Age movie theater where he makes the projection booth his bedroom.

Valentino is summoned to East L.A. to the home of Ignacio Bozal. Bozal made a fortune as a hotelier on the Mexican Riviera. When he retired he bought a block of houses in East L.A., built a wall around it, and moved his entire extended family into it. He has an extensive film collection and credits his facility with English to ‘30s gangster films. Now at 94, Bozal wants to donate another film to UCLA for preservation.

Bozal shows Valentino a film called “Big Ed”. The film, never seen outside the studio, was made in 1931 and starred a first-timer called Van Oliver. His portrayal of a Capone-like gangster was called brilliant by the few who had seen the film. Oliver, a one-time gangster himself, disappeared after the film was finished. Speculation at the time, fueled by his background, had him sleeping with the fishes.

Because of Oliver’s disappearance, and the rumors attached to it, the studio never released the film, nearing driving Warner Brothers into bankruptcy. The Hayes Commission, run by the religious right, was about to ban gangster movies of the type exemplified by “Scarface” and “Public Enemy,” so with no star to have interviewed, a sordid background, and the shadow of the Hayes Commission looming, Warner Brothers put the film on the shelf.

Valentino discovers that the film is everything rumors have said and more, a brilliant acting job by Oliver. The UCLA PR flack wants Valentino to find out more about the backstory of the movie, so he starts researching. He finds one cast member still alive, Roy Fitzhugh, a character actor who worked well into the ‘50s. Fitzhugh is a victim of Alzheimer’s, but Valentino goes to see him anyway hoping to get the real story of Oliver’s disappearance. And he does.

I like the Valentino series almost as much as I like Estleman’s Amos Walker stories even though Valentino isn’t, by any means, hardboiled. Estleman still works his magic. Reflecting on the contrasts of the two series as I was reading this story I discovered that I identified with Valentino just as much as I identify with Walker, even though the Valentino stories are written in third person. I was a little surprised by that.

In short, a terrific story.