Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932)

Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932)

Feel a thrill at the very mention of movie legends? Transported by wittily scribed Hollywood gossip? Compelled to unravel murders alongside great film noir detectives? Darkly fascinated by the insidious Nazi influences on the interwar movie industry?

Then Dangerous to Know is a book you must read.

My fascination with this book also comes from a more esoteric thread, that of costume design and fashion. The year is 1938, and the costume designer Edith Head is working to secure her ascendance at Paramount Studios. She has draped Dorothy Lamour famously in a sarong for The Hurricane, Anna Mae Wong in exotic sophistication for Dangerous to Know (yes, a fine title for this book). 

Head's own style has changed with her burgeoning career. She is now the serious woman with the closed-lip smile, neat black bangs and chignon, and owlish round black glasses we all can picture. For the book, the real Edith Head becomes a fictional character, friends with plucky young Lillian Frost, who has secured a job as social secretary to a movie-mad millionaire. They make an interesting team, Edith and Lillian, with enough intelligence, wit, depth, bravery, and (of course) style to drive the plot forward like bolts of silk under the sewing needles in the costume studio on the night before a Paramount filming. 

An obscure but true historical scandal, one that left Jack Benny and George Burns facing smuggling charges, is the scaffolding of the drama. In her quest to put her best foot forward, Edith Head asks Lillian Frost to help Marlene Dietrich find missing friend, accompanist, and fellow émigré Jens Lohse. Lillian discovers Lohse's dead body, along with a trail of real and fictional characters that lead her into a murder mystery maze worthy of Old Hollywood.

I couldn't put the book down, not just because I couldn't wait to discover the denouement, but because the writing has picturesque vintage details, such as Lillian's landlady Mrs. Quigley, "her taste buds ravaged by an excess of champagne and oysters during her Ziegfeld Follies days, brewed java strong enough to bring Pony Express riders to their knees" or Errol Flynn guiding a young woman "into his banquette as if she were a Buick with balky steering.”

Precise are the references to fashion, as when Lillian describes to Edith a woman of a certain age at a dinner party:

Picture a floor-length sheath of white silk jersey...with a gargantuan royal-blue bow covering most of the bodice. The points of which unfortunately emphasized Mrs. Lauer’s sagging jawline.

Yes, I picture this, and recognize the implications. I could easily conjure the image of every fashion described in Dangerous to Know, and there are many. When Lillian proclaims that her millionaire boss wore not a tuxedo for a dinner party, but blue serge, I feel privy to a deeper understanding of the characters. 

When we first see Dietrich? 

Marlene Dietrich coasted into the office, crooked smile first. She wore a pale green daytime suit with a subtle checkered pattern and slightly flared skirt. The matching emerald veil on her low-crowned hat did extraordinary favors for eyes that required no help.

The thrill of the star's presence is as palpable as that emerald veil.

Dangerous to Know was authored by Rosemarie and Vince Keenan, under the pseudonym Renee Patrick. One of them, but most likely both the wife and husband, are deeply steeped in Old Hollywood history, making their story intoxicatingly real right down to the collars and cuffs.

It is the second Lillian Frost & Edith Head novel by Renee Patrick, the first, Design for Dying, is now on my must-read list, as will be any future stories starring these new favorite sleuths. 

 

Please note: A copy of Dangerous to Know was given to me to review if I wished, with no quid pro quo expected.

 

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