Mar 20, 2017

Book Review: Edith Head and Classic Hollywood Featured in Dangerous to Know

Dangerous to Know
Renee Patrick
Forge, 2017

This is a mystery for those who think that cocktails, and conversation, should sparkle. Set in late 1930s Hollywood, when the word Hitler sent a chill down many a spine, and David O. Selznick was about to set his version of Atlanta aflame, it exists in a world of classic movies and pre-war intrigue. This installment follows Design for Dying, which like this book features Hollywood social secretary Lillian Frost and a fictionalized Edith Head, who in addition to their daily duties, solve mysteries on the side. Written by Renee Patrick, the pen name for husband and wife team Rosemarie and Vince Keenan, this engaging riff on the past juggles laughs, intrigue and suspense with a pleasing zest.

The first chapter of Dangerous to Know is a torrent of details and I had a hard time getting my footing at first as I jumped into this second installment without the benefit of reading the first. I finally established who was who and what they did. By the second chapter all was clear and the narrative hit its stride.

Frost is a failed actress who works for Addison Rice, a millionaire with Hollywood connections. She is friends with Edith Head, who is in her early days at Paramount Studios and not yet proven to her employers. Head asks Frost to help Marlene Dietrich solve the mystery of a missing friend, a request which seems simple, but becomes increasingly more complex. As Lillian plunges deeper into danger, she finds herself mixed up in murder, a smuggling operation and even gets caught in the cross-hairs of the Nazis.

I sometimes feel a bit let down by fiction that references classic Hollywood because the details don't ring true. Sometimes the stars will say things that don't jive with their off-screen character or be given values that don't fit their personalities or the times they lived in. There's a big difference between a writer who is drawn to old movies and one who really understands what makes them great.

Patrick has done the necessary research to get period details right, but also has a knack for expressing the feel of the era and the personalities of the stars. Sometimes those bits of information can seemed like they are wedged a bit awkwardly into the narrative, but for the most part they are entertaining, and even enlightening. The most successful portrait is of Marlene Dietrich, the catalyst for Frost and Head's latest mystery. She is portrayed as dramatic, prone to weaving fantasies, motherly to the point of interfering too much and absolutely stunning to all she meets.

It is particularly amusing how the physical effect Dietrich has on others is communicated, from the mention of her name causing men to straighten their posture to this amusing exchange after she sweeps out of the room: "I exhaled and sank into a chair. "Does talking to Marlene cause the bends?" Edith polished her glasses and smiled without displaying a single tooth. "One gets used to it." I could hear Dietrich's voice in my head in her scenes; the text captures her off-screen persona delightfully.

There are other cameos and brief celebrity appearances. Jack Benny and George Burns play a role in the smuggling sub plot, while Billy Wilder drops by to partake in a picnic lunch with Head. Errol Flynn and Leni Riefenstahl also make extended appearances and there's a blustering cameo by C. Aubrey Smith on the cricket field. It's fun because their patter does ring true with their screen personas and the biographical details that have been revealed about their lives.

Edith Head isn't as present in the novel as I expected given her equal billing with Lillian Frost on the cover. Rather than being a partner in solving the crimes, for the most part she serves as a sort of elegant fairy godmother, bailing out our heroine from time to time and offering good advice. That said, she does appear more in the latter part of the book. Along with her boss Addison, the designer is Lillian's in to the more glamorous parts of Hollywood.

Dangerous to Know is an immensely entertaining book, cleverly written and with enough surprises to keep you on your toes. The first half is full of fabulous zingers, the sort of witty asides you might expect from an in-the-know party guest at a glamorous affair. While the action slacks a bit going into the final third of the book, the suspense increases as it enters the final stretch. I enjoyed it enough to want to catch up with Patrick's first installment of what I hope will be a continuing series.

Many thanks to Forge for providing a copy of the book for review.

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