Reach for the popcorn. The silver screen sleuths from Paramount Pictures, one-time would be actress Lillian Fox and costume designer Edith Head (based upon the real life Oscar winner) team up for their second case in Renee Patrick’s Dangerous to Know. With Marlene Dietrich, Errol Flynn, Jack Benny, and George Burns firing off great lines, the caper is as much fun as a Saturday matinee at the long lost Bijou. Kirkus’ reviewer sums it up as “[a] brightly written tale.”
As readers of the debut installment, Design for Dying, probably know, Renee Patrick is the nom de plume for husband-and-wife team Rosemarie and Vince Keenan. Like the first book, this follow-up also brims with wit and charm, but the plot, which takes place in 1938, has serious underpinnings. When Dietrich prevails upon Lillian to find a missing pianist, the sleuth stumbles onto a sinister group of Nazis at work in Hollywood, a subject based in reality.
“The pro-Nazi German-American Bund was quite active leading up to the war,” Vince says. “Their high point occurred right after Dangerous to Know ends, a Madison Square Garden rally in February 1939; but once the war began in Europe, their support collapsed.”
The film community feared the Nazi’s rise to power.
“In Hollywood they felt the threat more acutely,” Rosemarie says, “because of the large number of refugees and émigrés from Germany and Austria who had seen the Nazi menace firsthand.”
To research the book, the authors sought out primary sources and read books and magazines from the period.
“Reading through [Edith Head’s] papers was like getting information directly from her,” Vince says. Head created costumes for directors Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges and film stars Ginger Rogers, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and many more. “We were very lucky to be able to visit the Paramount lot and have experts guide us as we walked in Edith’s footsteps,” he adds. “Los Angeles is famous for tearing down its history. But you can always find pockets of the past if you know where to look.”
Work on the books also involves looking at lots of classic films.
“We like the idea of spotlighting some of the lesser-known films Edith designed costumes for,” Vince says, “because she worked on so many. Not every one of them is a classic, but they each have their own pleasures.”
“One thing we mine movies for is language: slang terms, that fast-talking screwball aesthetic,” Rosemarie says. “And, of course, clothes. I’ll take any chance to describe the character’s clothes.”
The authors found her work and Hollywood of the ‘30s ideal starting places for their series.
“The story of [Head’s] career is so fascinating,” Rosemarie says. “Unlike her contemporaries she didn’t have a fashion background, yet she worked her way to the peak of her profession.”
“And Hollywood in the 1930s was the dream factory at its zenith,” Vincent adds, “with famous faces galore.”
“We haven’t yet reached the best parts of Edith’s career,” Vincent says, “like her long collaborations with Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock. When Dangerous to Know ends, Edith’s best work is still ahead of her.”
The authors hope to expand upon what Head and other women contributed to Hollywood.
“We’d love not only to track Edith’s career,” Renee says, “but to write a whole fictional, female-centric history of Hollywood.”
And as they track Head’s career, the authors plan to move through the decades in which she worked.
“We have what we think is a fun approach to Citizen Kane that would focus more on Marion Davis,” Vince says.
Will designer Head get her tape measure around Orson Welles’ considerable girth? That could be a moment to cut and print.
Gerald Bartell is a writer living in New York.