Brazen by Loren D, Estleman (Mystery/Crime Novel, 2016).
A much-honored writer in the mystery and western fiction genres, Loren Estleman’s latest ongoing series involves an amateur detective named Valentino. He works at UCLA as a film archivist and motion picture historian. He lives in a rundown former movie theater he’s slowly restoring and his obsession with film lore sometimes amuses, sometimes irritates his girlfriend, who works for the police morgue. His boss at the university, a quirky older man and probably the only person even more passionate than Valentino about the industry’s past, is soon to marry a much younger woman. The cases Valentino and his friends get involved in all concern people connected to the movie business, one way or another. Estleman uses the LA scene and particularly inside views of the film industry to great and knowing effect here.
Brazen is the fourth Valentino mystery and somewhat brief (the story runs 187 crisply written and involving pages) And Estleman tacks on another 18 pages of what he wryly styles “Closing Credits”–very entertainingly writing about movies and books related to the stars whose fates the novel’s villain uses for murderous inspiration. Nonetheless, Brazen will delight lovers of crime fiction leavened with quirky characters and occasionally ghoulish humor, as well as being a particular treat for all film enthusiasts (especially those who adore movie history).
This novel revolves around Valentino and very reluctant police detective Ray Padilla eventually teaming up to track down an obsessed man who’s taken to reenacting examples of the so-called Curse of Marilyn. According to Hollywood legend, sexy blonde superstars like Marilyn Monroe always meet premature, tragic and often bizarre ends. Our crazed killer, whose motive I won’t discuss for fear of spoiling everything for you the reader, targets blondes connected with the entertainment industry around Hollywood, arranges their murders and then makes sure each one duplicates as nearly as possible one of these earlier deaths.
Valentino was casually friendly with a long-retired, brassy and aged blonde movie bombshell named Beata Limerick. He’d been invited to dinner at her place and came hoping to get her to donate a piece of movie history to UCLA’s collection–only to discover her lifeless body arranged in a grotesque, yet vaguely familiar manner in her bedroom. Very briefly, Valentino is considered a suspect. But soon the grim-faced Padilla realizes he’s actually a sort of expert witness–for the archivist realizes that the odd murder scene is just like the condition in which Marilyn Monroe was found, back in the early 1960s.
It certainly helps that Beata had confessed to Valentino that the reason she quit the film business early was, indeed, a superstitious fear of the Curse. She and Valentino had recently talked about it, in fact. They’d discussed a string of famed blonde stars who met assorted weird and tragic early deaths throughout movie history. And Estleman makes sure to have Beata note that at least one real movie actress (Mamie Van Doren) actually claimed she quit the movie industry for fear of what had befallen her two of her famous contemporaries (Monroe and Jayne Mansfield).
Soon other deaths start turning up–ones Valentino recognizes as ritualized reenactments of the deaths of early star Thelma Todd and the more recent Mansfield. The third murder leads Parilla to a seemingly plausible suspect, but Valentino has his doubts–and of course is eventually proven correct. But then who is the culprit, who is his next victim, and which dead actress’s violent end will it mimic?
I won’t give away too many additional details, but there’s probably no harm in revealing that our heroes find themselves rushing to prevent a gruesome mass-killing based on the infamous Manson Family’s slaughter of Sharon Tate and several of her dinner party guests. And of course, Valentino and company do prevail.
I very much enjoyed this book; will definitely look up the earlier entries in the series. If smart, snappy dialogue is your thing–along with all sorts of movie references and a decent mystery–you will too.