I've been a big fan of Loren D. Estleman's Amos Walker series of detective novels but had no idea of another ongoing character in his repertoire. Valentino is a film detective and a UCLA film archivist who has starred in three novels. Alive! works great as an introduction to the character, as most of Estleman's novels do. You can pick it up and not be lost at all, even if some of the characters' relationships carry over from book to book. Alive! is an excellent book and a lot of fun. Estleman's style remains, but the love of old movies wafts from the pages like that new book smell that enchants us all.
A little-known fact about the original Frankenstein movie is that Boris Karloff was not the first actor to audition for the role. Dracula's Bela Lugosi did as well, and that footage has never been found. It's supposedly terrible, but for an old film buff and archivist, it would be gold. An old friend of Valentino's who is down on his luck calls him and offers to sell it to him. Before the deal can be reached, the friend is brutally murdered. Valentino feels responsible and gets on the case despite everyone he knows trying to dissuade him. The cops are trying even harder, but he can't let it go. Is the Lugosi footage really worth killing for? Just how valuable is it, and who will be left alive to collect?
Alive! is even more fun than the Walker series, mainly because while murder is a serious business, the tone of the books is a lot lighter. It's not a hard-boiled detective novel. Valentino's life is full of crazy characters, from his much-older boss at UCLA, who's currently in the process of planning (or avoiding planning) his wedding to a young former student, to his CSI girlfriend who's away at a conference in Seattle. The interactions with these characters (especially his boss) really make the novel, though the mystery is very good as well.
What really separates the Valentino books from the Walker ones are the numerous old film references. Alive! drips with old Hollywood nostalgia, occasionally taking a moment and wallowing in it, such as the multiple-page sequence where Lugosi's screen test is actually shown. Fans of the genre will love all of this, but it never becomes so overbearing that those without knowledge will feel lost or bored. Estleman's writing remains engaging regardless.
I also loved the exploration of the whole steampunk genre, with Valentino's intern introducing him to the lifestyle. It seems like a lot to cover in a fairly short mystery, but Estleman does his usually excellent job with all of this. You can really see why some people are attracted to the whole thing.
So the setting and characters are great. How about the plot? It's a fairly interesting one, bringing in a local gangster as well as a rival film archivist who's in it for the retail value of the films rather than preservation. Events take some surprising turns, and while who didn't do it is often obvious, I was a bit surprised at the ending. I also appreciated the "Closing Credits" section of the book, where Estleman goes into detail as to what is really true in the novel and what he extrapolated and created for himself.
Overall, Alive! is a great book that has me looking for the first two books in the series, as well as the numerous short stories that Estleman has written introducing the Valentino character. This series shows how varied Estleman's writing ability is and never fails to keep you reading to the next chapter.