Estleman combines his two greatest loves, sleuthing and Westerns, in film-preservation detective Valentino’s fourth appearance.
Long, long ago, retired Western star Red Montana paid off a blackmailer who threatened to circulate stills from a blue movie his wife and co-star, Dixie Day, made before the two were teamed for romance and profit amid the sagebrush. Now that Dixie’s dying and the 60-year-old Red Montana and Dixie Day Museum is closing, all Red wants is to ride off into the evening mist. But someone’s back with evidence that Dixie’s first screen appearance—mild by today’s standards but still fatal to the couple’s homespun myth—is still in existence. Red wants Valentino (Alive!, 2013, etc.) to find the film and neutralize the threat. When Val protests that he’s more comfortable nosing around in archives than confronting blackmailers, Red responds with a bit of his own blackmail. If Valentino obliges, Red will present him a copy of the couple’s debut film, Sixgun Sonata, a property long presumed lost; if not, he’ll burn the print and lose this piece of history for good. Daunted but game, Val sets out to question Red’s associates and swiftly finds cooperation, treachery, and even a surprise or two. The detective work winds up unexpectedly quickly; the real climax involves the trading of multiple debts and favors involving the bachelor party of Val’s old mentor, UCLA professor Kyle Broadhead; Val’s restoration of The Oracle, the aging movie palace he’s adopted; the immigration status of a cabinetmaker’s son; and the settling of a generations-old score.
Valentino’s most relaxed and accomplished appearance to date, one whose tone of sunset valediction perfectly suits what sounds uncomfortably (say it ain’t so!) like Estleman’s farewell to the two genres he’s been masterfully associated with for 30 years.