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Loren D. Estleman has written his 85th book and it's nothing like the rest

Kurt Anthony Krug  |  Special to The Detroit News

  One of the saddest things for Loren D. Estleman to hear is when someone recommends an author and says in the next breath, “Read his early work – it’s his best.”

“That isn’t the way it should be. As a writer learns his craft, he should get better, not worse,” said Estleman, 67, who lives in Whitmore Lake with his wife/fellow novelist Deborah Morgan.

An alumnus of Dexter High School and Eastern Michigan University (which awarded him an honorary doctorate in humane letters in 2002), Estleman is an award-winning, prolific author. He’s best known for the hard-boiled mystery series set in Detroit, featuring private eye Amos Walker. In addition to detective fiction, Estleman has written Westerns, historical fiction, and nonfiction. In fact, his 85th book “Indigo: A Valentino Mystery” (Forge $25.99) was recently released.

“All I can say is each new project feels like the first, with all the excitement and terror that implies,” explained Estleman. “I’ve said it before… I don’t write the same story, the same kind of book twice in a row, or I very rarely do. I’ll write a contemporary mystery, then the next one will be a Western. The two genres are different enough for me that one is a vacation from the other. They’re similar enough that I don’t feel culture shock from one genre to the next. I like to call it literary crop-rotation. When I finish a mystery, I’m ready to do a Western. When I finish a Western, I’m ready to do a mystery. Each one’s fresh. I’m still excited about doing a story.”

“Indigo” is the sixth novel to feature Valentino, a UCLA film archivist. The plot revolves around the movie “Black Street,” a film from Hollywood’s noir era believed lost for more than 60 years. However, the estate of Ignacio Bozal gifts “Black Street” to UCLA. Van Oliver, the star of “Black Street” with supposed ties to the mob, disappeared while the movie was in post-production. Rather than risk it bombing at the box office, studio bosses shelved “Black Street” and it ended up missing.

UCLA’s public relations office is excited about acquiring “Black Street,” but only if Valentino can find a way to sell it to the mainstream media by way of a sensational discovery to coincide with its release, particularly answering the question: Whatever happened to Oliver? However, raising this question puts Valentino in the crosshairs of some very bad people.

“Film noir is one of my obsessions,” said Estleman. “I wanted to frame the crusade to secure and exhibit a lost masterpiece of the genre in terms of a real-life noir story. The mechanics came courtesy of two previous Valentino short stories that appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine – ‘Shooting Big Ed’ and ‘Dark Lady Down’ – which I drastically revised and expanded and, in the end, produced a story that was 99% new.”

            Estleman modeled Valentino (who has no first name) on Kevin Brownlow, the world’s pre-eminent film archivist.

“(Brownlow’s) account of his decades-long quest to track down, reassemble, and restore Abel Gance’s (1927 silent film) ‘Napoléon’ reads like a thrilling suspense novel,” said Estleman. “All I did was add the threat of arrest and death. As a lifelong old-movie buff, I’ve found the series to be a true labor of love.”

Despite “Indigo” being his first Valentino novel in four years, Estleman had no problem returning to the series.

“The true test of a character with legs is he’s always ready for the next go-round,” he said. “Due most likely to my fascination with film and love of this particular genre, the pace never let up. It was like riding a dolphin, holding on for dear life and loving every minute.”

Estleman doesn’t outline his novels, which are complex mysteries with plenty of twists and turns.

“I never know how it’ll turn out when I start writing,” he said. “There always comes a point where I say, ‘What the heck am I doing here? What are these strings I’m trying to pull? How will I get everything to come together at the end?’ There’s always some trepidation about that, but somehow they all come together. I’ve learned to trust that without necessarily expecting it. There’s a magic to it. I call it planting charges – they go off in just the right sequence. Sometimes I do it without even knowing I’m doing it. I can look back and say, ‘That’s perfect. I use this and advance the action.’”

Apart from the loose framework from his previous two short-stories, Estleman didn’t plot “Indigo” in advance.

“I freewheeled ‘Indigo,’ bringing in a major subplot involving a threat posed by a

powerful magnate to seize and destroy the recently rediscovered film, a seeming ghost from the past, and a fresh and pressing reason for Valentino to solve a 60-year-old mystery in a rigid time-frame or lose a valuable film property forever,” he said. “Impromptu plotting is a process I’ve found to be both stimulating and terrifying.  The latter was particularly true last year, when my editor sent me cover proofs for the mystery I was writing – before I’d figured out who committed the murder and why.”

Asked where he gets his ideas, Estleman doesn’t have a clue.

“I don’t question where ideas originate,” he said. “I don’t want to scare away the magic.”

Steve Hamilton and Peter Leonard, both fellow authors with Detroit roots, have praised Estleman’s work.

“Loren Estleman’s Amos Walker series is quintessential Detroit crime fiction,” said Hamilton. “(Estleman) might be the most underappreciated writer in the business.”

Added Leonard: “Loren Estleman is a tour de force. Eighty-five novels and no sign that he’s slowing down.”

According to Estleman, what keeps his work fresh is at various points throughout his long career he’s made the conscious decision to step out of his comfort zone.

“I think what happens is a lot of (authors) get bored; they get tired of doing the same thing over and over and over again,” said Estleman. “They don’t challenge themselves to do something fresh.”

Although Estleman has no plans to have Valentino meet Walker like he did with Walker and another series character, hitman Peter Macklin, in 2018’s “Black and White Ball,” he doesn’t rule it out.

“I’ve never thought about it,” he said. “Wedding hard-boiled suspense to mystery/comedy poses challenges, but I've never backed off from those.”

Estleman is definitely challenging himself with his next novel, “The Eagle and the Viper,” slated for a March 2021 release. It’s historical fiction that opens with an actual plot to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte when he was First Consul of France.

“This one’s been more than 30 years in the planning,” he said. “Napoleon is another of my pet fixations, aided and abetted by some 200 books in my personal library, which – at last count – is less than 1/1000th of the volumes published (about him). Forge is excited about this new direction, proof that I don’t acknowledge limitations based on past successes.”

Robin Agnew, who co-owned Aunt Agatha’s, the now-closed bookstore in Ann Arbor that specialized in mysteries, has fond memories of hosting Estleman many times at her shop.

“Loren Estleman is a Michigan treasure,” she said. “His prose is so beautiful and thoughtful; it’s meant to be savored, and all that beauty is wrapped, often, around a hard-boiled private eye story. It’s an incredibly effective contrast. His Valentino series is so much fun with so much humor, and I love that his passion for film is so evident in these books. He has now written 85 novels. I hope it’s not greedy to say that I hope he will write 85 more.”