LOREN D. ESTLEMAN – The Rocky Mountain Moving Picture Association

Forge, paperback; 1st printing, July 2000. [Hardcover first edition: Forge, March 1999.]

The Rocky Mountain Moving Picture Association

   Movies are a large part of everyone’s life today, whether viewed in theaters, seen as videos at home, or the basis of watercooler gossip at work. It comes as a distinct pleasure, therefore, to read about the early days of the pre-Hollywood motion picture industry, back in the days of makeshift sets, mind-melting lighting systems and hand-cranked cameras.

   People did what they had to in order to get those dazzling images up on the screen. In this novel Buck Bensinger’s leading lady Adele Varga is a former Mexican prostitute. She’s also the producer, the secretary, the bookkeeper, and when she needs to, she’s also the company’s publicity director. Buck’s new leading man is an ex-convict, just released from San Quentin.

   In the real world, before he started making movies, D. W. Griffith (to pick just one example) was a cash boy in a dry goods store. Other recognizable names are bumped into now and again, as Buck tries his best to get his latest two-reel epic finished.

   The villain, though? Surprise of surprises, none other than Thomas Alva Edison, dubbed by Buck as “The Lizard of Menlo Park.” Twenty years after coming up with the moving picture process, Edison discovered that there was money to be made from the idea, and he helped form a monopolistic trust (the Motion Pictures Patents Company) whose sole function was to keep anyone else from making movies.

   Driven from the East Coast, the early pioneers in the field were forced westward to California, where they finally made their stand. And where they faced vandalism, kidnappings, wide-scale destruction of movie lots, and worse. (Edison himself may have been unaware of what was transpiring in his name, and the Pinkerton detectives who worked for the Trust were, as they claimed, on the side of the law.)

   People in on the early days of anything are not always aware of their eventual footnoted places in history — they’re there to do a job, with a love for what they’re doing — and it’s left to others to look back later and marvel at their accomplishments. Giving us (the reader) the same perspective in this story is Tom Boston, a would-be writer born Dmitri Pulski, the son of a northern California iceman. Sent by his father to negotiate a sale of eight tons of ice to the Rocky Mountain Picture Association, Tom finds life in the sunny south much more to his liking and never returns to the life of cutting ice in the Sierra Nevadas. What he receives, along with a paycheck, is a ringside seat to the birth of a new industry.

   What happens next is pure fiction, a novel too good to be fiction, and if it didn’t really happen, it should have.

          — August 2000. This review first appeared in The Historical Novels Review. It has been very slightly revised since then.

[UPDATE] 02-22-08. I’ve just checked — I hadn’t before — but this book is not included in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV. I’d have to skim through it again to be sure, but from the review itself, which is all I’m going by, there doesn’t appear to be quite enough crime element in it to qualify for inclusion.

   But the facts about Edison and the tactics of the Pinkertons on behalf of Motion Pictures Patent Company are true enough, and obviously Loren Estleman has a mystery (and western) writer’s approach to telling a rattling good tale.

   Anybody interested in the early days of movie-making ought to enjoy this book. You’ll probably be able to buy it online easily enough, but for some reason, other than my own copy, I’ve never seen another one in a bookstore, new or used.

[ADDED LATER.] This book was written during a particularly fertile period in Estleman’s career. In the four year period from 1997 to 2000, he wrote a total of ten books, all major ones. Since then, he seems to have slowed down to a more normal pace of a book a year. Taken from his wikipedia entry:

# Never Street (1997; Amos Walker)
# Billy Gashade: An American Epic (1997; historical)
# The Witch Finder (1998; Amos Walker)
# Jitterbug (1998; Detroit series)
# Journey of the Dead (1998; western)
# The Rocky Mountain Moving Picture Association (1999; historical)
# The Hours of the Virgin (1999; Amos Walker)
# Thunder City (1999; Detroit series)
# White Desert (2000; Page Murdock)
# A Smile on the Face of the Tiger (2000; Amos Walker)