Invisible Ink: No 88 - Loren D Estleman

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The Independent Culture

I count at least 65 novels and hundreds of short stories to date in Loren D Estleman's Chandleresque output. Not bad for a guy who works on an old manual typewriter. He's been described as "the Stravinsky of hard-boiled prose", whatever that means, but his career to date is better summed up by The Boston Globe, which says that he's "a true professional, a writer of a sort increasingly rare ... so given to his work as to spontaneously combust to genius".

His novels are the kind you find in dog-eared editions on rotating wire racks in general stores, the sort you may only pick up when you're desperate for reading material on holiday. But Estleman has a secret: he's actually a terrific writer who can turn his hand to almost any style of prose. And that, as we know from past entries in this column, is enough to hopelessly confuse the public.

Estleman was born in 1952, and his childhood love of TV westerns such as Maverick and Gunsmoke led to a series of western novels. His detective fiction series featuring the Detroit-based private eye Amos Walker has reached its 20th volume, and he is currently running several other crime series in the US.

So, why is he difficult to find on British shelves? In part, Estleman is the kind of writer we no longer nurture or publish. In America it's still possible to enjoy a career based on sales of short fiction; many of Estleman's tales have been published in magazines including Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. His latest creation, appearing in a series of short stories and novels, is Valentino, a film archiv-ist employed by UCLA who becomes an amateur sleuth involved in murder cases as he tracks down missing films and their stars, .

In the late Seventies, Estleman wrote two volumes of memoirs by John Watson MD, detailing untold novel-length adventures of Sherlock Holmes in which the Baker Street detective tracks Dracula and Dr Jekyll respectively. But my favourite Estleman oddity is Peeper, a pitch-perfect spoof of hardboiled fiction that starts with a dead priest in a hooker's bed. "Was he in a state of Grace?" asks the Bishop, upon hearing of the death. "See, that's what I wanted to talk to you about," replies the private dick, setting off on a chase through lowlife Detroit.

Estleman's excellent short stories have been collected, but are virtually impossible to find. Here's hoping his Valentino series finally introduces him to British readers.