Design for Dying by Renee Patrick is the 1st book in the Lillian Frost & Edith Head series, nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel.
This delightful novel of Old Hollywood is as heady and beguiling as the champagne that flows freely at the parties that litter its pages. It imagines famed costume designer Edith Head as a mystery-solver and mentor to our plucky fictional heroine Lillian Frost, who came to Hollywood to become a movie star but found herself far more talented at selling underthings at the department store Tremayne’s.
When a glamorously dressed corpse is found in the alley outside Lillian’s former boarding house, the newspapers lose little time in dubbing the unidentified body “The Alley Angel.” Lillian’s worst fears are realized when two LAPD detectives—grumpy Hansen and handsome Morrow—show up at her workplace to show her some pictures. Lillian identifies the dead woman as her former roommate, the aspiring and penniless starlet Ruby Carroll.
At first, the detectives think Lillian, by dint of her job, might have had something to do with helping to procure Ruby’s clearly purloined wardrobe. In order to clear herself (and keep her job), Lillian assists them in identifying the true source of Ruby’s clothes, a task that leads her to the acquaintance of the formidable Edith Head.
Edith’s own career is in a precarious place, and her interest in seeing the right thing done must be balanced against a studio system notoriously averse to scandal. So she and Lillian form a partnership in order to bring a killer to justice while ruffling as few studio feathers as possible.
It is to Renee Patrick’s credit that this is done in a manner that feels entirely organic—often a challenge when incorporating a historical figure into fiction. Of course, it helps that Edith herself was such a marvelous personage, as canny regarding human behavior as she was talented at design. Here, Lillian is asking how Edith plans to get an outlandish costume onscreen:
“How are you going to talk an actress into wearing one of these headpieces? They’re like deer antlers swaddled in linen.”
The corners of Edith’s mouth briefly migrated upward. “I have the book open when the actress arrives for her fitting. We gush and coo over the design of the distant past. I lament that the studio won’t let me embrace that look for fear modern audiences will reject actresses in such garb. Invariably the actress will screw up her face, turn to me and say—”
“ ‘They’ll believe me in it.’ I’m starting to think you’re an evil genius.”
It’s obvious that Design For Dying has been meticulously researched, from the believability of Edith Head as crime-solver to the snappy dialog to the many wonderful details of this very specific place and time. An excellent interlude with Barbara Stanwyck aside, this was one my favorite descriptive passages that highlights some lesser-known trivia of Old Hollywood:
When the silent screen was king, many of its stars dwelt close to the firmament in Whitley Heights. The glamorously precarious neighborhood, perched on the hillside overlooking Hollywood Boulevard, had been the first celebrity enclave in Los Angeles. The houses on its narrow, winding streets had a Mediterranean flavor, all red slate roofs and broad windows. They offered seclusion a stone’s throw from the studios. The big names had since decamped for the more extravagant pastures of Beverly Hills, but once upon a time everyone who mattered lived up here. Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Rudolph Valentino.
Above all, I really enjoyed how believable this entire caper was. Lillian is a sensible detective after my own heart, and her relationship with the police—cooperative while still taking the initiative—was a perfect balance of amateur smarts assisting the good guys without trying to upstage their efforts (or putting her own life into unnecessary jeopardy!). I also really enjoyed her career decisions and reasoning, though I would not be made of such stern stuff as she is were Edith Head to offer me a job.
Design For Dying is as effervescent as good champagne, but also as satisfying as a hearty, if perhaps somewhat decadent, meal. As the 1st in a series, it definitely whets the appetite for more. Little wonder it's been nominated for the Agathas: I’d say it's just as deserving of multiple accolades as its award-winning inspiration, Edith Head herself!
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.