APRIL 11, 2017
SOME AUTHORS USE a pseudonym to hide their true identity, but it’s no secret that Renee Patrick is actually a pair of married cinephiles, Vince and Rosemarie Keenan. They both grew up in Queens, New York, but didn’t meet until later in life, at a Florida advertising agency where they bonded over their mutual love of classic films and classic cocktails. Their critically acclaimed gem of a first novel, Design for Dying, was the start of a star-studded and compulsively readable series in which legendary costume designer Edith Head gets mixed up in murder.
When they first told me about this idea they had for a book set in the golden age of Hollywood, I couldn’t wait to read it. I don’t usually read traditional mysteries where nobody swears and death is always off-screen, but I burned through Design for Dying in one sitting and couldn’t wait to get my hands on Dangerous to Know. One of the many things I love about this series is its other heroine, Edith Head’s intrepid legwoman Lillian Frost. She’s a clever, gutsy, and relatable protagonist who never feels like a time-traveler burdened with the often painfully inorganic qualities of a stereotypical 21st-century Strong Female Character ™. Way too many modern writers have been trained by pop culture to believe the only way a female character can be strong is by physically kicking ass. This series is all about strong women, both fictional and real, who don’t have to beat up men or dive sideways with two guns to prove who wears the pants. I can’t recommend it highly enough, even (or especially) if you don’t normally go for these kinds of books.
Still not convinced? Read on as I interrogate the Keenans about everything from writing techniques to vintage fashion to Hollywood history.
CHRISTA FAUST: Why Edith Head? When you first told me about the idea, it seemed like such a slam dunk that the book couldn’t possibly be about anyone else, but I’m still interested to hear how you chose her. Did you want to write something about a classic Hollywood costume designer and she seemed like the most interesting choice or was it just a love-at-first-sight kind of thing where it was her or nothing from day one?
VINCE KEENAN: The entire idea including Edith Head was presented to me as a fait accompli, so —
ROSEMARIE KEENAN: It all began with Edith. The initial idea was an article for Noir City, the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine, about the role of costume design in film noir. Very quickly I narrowed my focus to Edith Head. She worked on so many classics of the form like Double Indemnity and the Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake films, then she’d go on to a long collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. And her story fascinated me. She was ahead of her time, a woman running the costume department at a major studio who didn’t have the pedigree of her contemporaries. She answered an ad for a sketch artist, essentially lied to land the job, and worked her way to the top. That path was easier for me to identify with.
VK: Any costume designer could conceivably work as a detective. They all have that behind-the-scenes access. We always say there are no secrets in a dressing room. But there was something about Edith — her story, her iconic look — that made her the natural choice.
How about a little backstory on the two of you? How did you meet? How did you come around to the idea of becoming a pseudonymous writing team? And how does your marriage survive the rigors of the writing racket?
RK: We met the old-fashioned way. At work.
VK: In the prehistoric days, before Tinder. We’ve been married for 25 years.
RK: We grew up a few miles apart in New York, but met at an advertising agency in Florida. We bonded over our love of classic movies and Twin Peaks. Plus, Vince had a car.
VK: Rosemarie told me her idea of having Edith Head be a kind of Nero Wolfe in Hollywood, with a failed actress as her legwoman. And I wanted in.
RK: Vince had much more experience as a writer, so I was happy to throw in with him. “Renee Patrick” started as a commercial decision. What’s the point in having two names on a book when you haven’t heard of either of them? As for the marriage …
VK: We’re answering these questions in separate rooms.
RK: In separate buildings.
VK: It’s actually been fun, working together on the books. We’d be talking about old movies and crime novels anyway. At least now we get paid for it. There have been a few bumps along the way as we get used to each other’s methods.
Nuts and bolts question: How do the two of you work together? Do you have a set routine or do you wing it? Do you each write alternating chapters or does one person draft and the other polish? Or…?
RK: It evolved. We outlined Design for Dying together, but it was important for me personally to write an entire draft through to completion. I’d never attempted anything like this before. I had to prove to myself and to Vince that I could do it. Of course, then I had to show it to him.
VK: And I said, “This is great! I’m sure your next draft will be even better!”
RK: He was nice about it. Then he polished that second draft, and at that point we had a handle on what Renee Patrick sounded like. So we did a final version together.
VK: And it only took four years. With the second book, we had 12 months. That forced us to reverse the process. Rosemarie has a day job, so I wrote the first draft while she’d edit and revise at night. By then, we both knew who Renee was. It came a lot more easily.
Research is an important part of writing any period mystery, but the kind of deep-dish backstory that you have infused into both of these books isn’t the kind of thing you can get off Wikipedia. What can you tell me about your research methods and how you were able to gain access to so much behind-the-scenes skinny?
RK: There are some wonderful resources online now, like an entire library of vintage fan magazines. They’re surprisingly useful. They were all written by publicity flacks, but you can tell what stories they aren’t telling you from the ones they are.
VK: A throwaway newspaper item we stumbled on about a 1938 scandal involving two big Paramount stars gave us the seed for Dangerous to Know. We scour used bookstores. But research trips to Los Angeles are essential. Edith Head left her estate to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, so we visited the Margaret Herrick Library and pored over her correspondence while sitting at what used to be her dining room table. And our work with Eddie Muller and the Film Noir Foundation opened doors for us at Paramount, where Edith spent most of her career. Walking around that lot, we wanted to do right by her memory.
Movies and their stars are clearly a major influence in the Edith Head novels, but one film in particular that plays a key role in Dangerous to Know is the relatively unknown Artists and Models Abroad starring Jack Benny. What can you tell me about that film and why you chose to feature it?
VK: It’s nuts.
RK: I love it. We chose it for two reasons. Jack Benny was one of the stars implicated in the scandal that kicks off the book. And there’s an unbelievable sequence — the assembly line of beauty — featuring models in authentic haute couture gowns from the period, designed by the likes of Elsa Schiaparelli and Lanvin.
VK: While Edith was saddled with the rest of the wardrobe. We loved the idea she’d be annoyed at being upstaged in her own picture. Design for Dying is also built around several now-forgotten films like The Return of Sophie Lang (1936) and College Swing (1938), in part because Edith worked every bit as hard on movies that weren’t classics. That says something important about the nature of creative work.
RK: They can’t all be Double Indemnity.
Also clothes and costumes play a huge role in the series. An example that stuck in my mind from Dangerous to Know was the gown that Lillian wears to the Fathom Club, “a black sleeveless chiffon dress with a pleated skirt and shirred Lastex waist of flame red.” I love and collect vintage clothes and even I had to look up “Lastex.” Where do you get ideas for dressing your characters? Do you invent their wardrobes by combining popular vintage style elements in your head or are they based on real clothes that were available in that time period?
VK: Rosemarie can answer this one. I write paragraphs with the words dress goes here.
RK: That’s how Dashiell Hammett wrote his Thin Man treatments. In a sense, we’re doing for our characters what Edith did. Wardrobe communicates so much so quickly. The primary inspiration for the clothes is department store ads from the period. What was on sale? What would a real person spend her money on? From there I combine the two methods you describe, bearing in mind personality and budget. And yes, I’m way too proud of working “Lastex” in there.
Punching Nazis has been a hot topic on the interwebs these days, but Dangerous to Know contains actual Nazi punching. Can you talk a little bit about the history of Jewish émigrés and refugees in late ’30s Hollywood that inspired this novel and why their stories feel so resonant in our current political climate?
VK: Who would have thought that fledgling fascism and the treatment of refugees would become relevant again? You’re a hardcore film noir fan. You know when you watch those movies, you’re seeing the work of people who fled oppression in Europe. Noir, that sense of persecution and the deck being always stacked against you, is steeped in that worldview. That’s because Hollywood welcomed these artists. They were allowed to continue plying their trade, provided they could adapt to the realities of the studio system. Plenty of them did, like Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak, and flourished.
RK: It also created this amazing mix of characters. Like Salka Viertel, who had been Greta Garbo’s screenwriter and confidante only to become den mother for this growing community of refugees and émigrés. We made a pilgrimage to her house in Santa Monica, which is still standing. Or the idea that the Paramount songwriters responsible for “Thanks for the Memory” were studying under Arnold Schoenberg at the time. Dangerous to Know focuses on the search for a missing composer because we were fascinated by Los Angeles becoming a world capital of modern music due to this influx of talent from Europe.
VK: Our favorite discovery was learning about the movie studios’ secret role in battling the Nazi influence in Southern California in the years leading up to the war, but to say any more would give away some plot twists. I guess you’ll just have to buy the book.
As with all historical fiction, there’s a fine line between real life events and the stories you weave between the lines of history. How hard is it to write made-up stories starring real people and how do you find that sweet spot between stretching the truth for the sake of a story and ripping it to shreds? Also, do you ever worry that the surviving family members of people you write about may be unhappy or offended by the fictional adventures you’ve created for their grandparents?
RK: Not to give anything away, but no named star is ever going to be the villain of the piece. We’d like to keep writing these books.
VK: We’re exceedingly cautious, as is our publisher’s legal department. We strive to be respectful of the real people while having fun with their personas. Our bigger concern was making sure Paramount Pictures didn’t object to us hijacking the studio’s history. But the archivists there have been wonderful to us, and so helpful.
RK: The truth is much stranger and more compelling than anything we could invent anyway. We set Dangerous at a very specific time, December 1938, because we couldn’t believe all the events that were happening in Los Angeles at once.
VK: The fun part for us was linking the true stories together.
Did you already envision an ongoing series when you started working on the first book? Any battles with sophomore slump or did it get easier as you went along?
VK: Edith’s career was so long — she made her last movie, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, in 1981 — that we couldn’t help seeing this as a series from the outset.
RK: There are so many actors and directors she worked with that we want to fictionalize. We can’t run out of material, because we’ll just ask, “What was her next picture?” and an entire cast of characters will suggest themselves. Hitchcock, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn …
VK: We were definitely concerned about a sophomore slump, though, so our motto was “Go big or go home.” Broader canvas, higher stakes.
RK: And stars, stars, stars!
What do you have in store for Lillian and Edith in the future?
RK: That depends. What was her next picture?