Fashionable Crime

My good friends Vince and Rosemarie Keenan have taken an alias for the first of a new series. Welcome, Renee Patrick, and so pleased to meet your frothy debut novel Design for Dying.

The Keenans and I have spent many hours discussing books, movies, and television, usually of the old-fashioned kind: the classics of film noir and the golden age of mystery. It makes perfect sense that these experts would create an expert homage to 30’s glamour and danger.

Their detective mastermind is true-life costume genius Edith Head, but truthfully Head is in the rather remote position of a Nero Wolfe. The action is carried by Lillian Frost, an Archie Goodwin who wears out the shoe leather while searching for clues.

The danger for a book like this is taking itself too seriously. The retro Nate Heller mysteries by Max Allan Collins have enjoyable historical detail but Collins’s naturally gritty and noir affect becomes awkward when, say, Heller seduces Amelia Earhart.

Far from attempting to be noir, Design for Dying is intentionally funny, perhaps especially when interacting with famous historical figures. After meeting Bob Hope at a costume fitting, Frost almost talks with him at a party:

I would have gone down to enjoy the show were it not for a frantic blur of movement to my right. A dressed-for-the-links Bob Hope was signaling me with his fingers, his eyebrows, the tip of his nose — and the fact he’d stepped away from his handsome wife, Dolores, to do so gave me the impression he was trying to arrange an amorous assignation. I responded with a flurry of nonsensical gestures, indicating either to steal third base or meet me at the boathouse, then beat a hasty retreat to the left.

Another great joke for mystery buffs is about the identity of the murderer. Read it and you’ll see.

The seriousness of the book is not about the mystery, but about the craft of Hollywood. Tribute is paid to all the lesser known talents who are just as responsible as the famous stars for a great movie. This topic is explicated in Renee Patrick’s Q & A at “My Favorite Bit.”

Vince and Rosemarie are in coming to New York this week to meet, greet, and sign at Mysterious Books Tuesday at 6:30. I’ll be on tour in South America, and truthfully it breaks my heart a little bit that I will miss them in my town, especially after all the hours they have spent showing me a good time in Seattle.


New DTM nav collects my crime fiction criticism under Newgate Callendar. This is not just a misspelling of the 19th-century journal of English crime The Newgate Calendar but actually stolen whole hog from Harold C. Schonberg, the eminent New York Times classical music critic who worshipped Josef Hofmann, wrote an intimate book about Vladimir Horowitz, and dismissed Leonard Bernstein, Glenn Gould, and Pierre Boulez: Schonberg also wrote reviews of mystery novels in the Times under the pseudonym “Newgate Callendar.”

I began writing up crime fiction for DTM with an overview of Donald E. Westlake after Westlake’s passing. The last time I saw Don he was cautiously optimistic about signing a deal allowing the early Parker books (which Don wrote under the pseudonym Richard Stark) to be adapted to graphic novels. He said he approved of the visual style and was pleased the artist promised to retain as much text as possible.

The artist was Darwyn Cooke, of course. The comic book world has been rocked by Cooke’s shocking death from cancer yesterday. Cooke’s Parker adaptions have been lauded both by Stark fans and comics fans. One of my favorite passages in Stark is the long sequence of heists in The Outfit. Cooke’s solution to condensing all that action, including different styles of art for each theft, is simply brilliant.