Design for Dying

Written by Renee Patrick
Review by Ellen Keith

I’m a sucker for a Hollywood mystery, and Design for Dying fit the bill perfectly. Set in Los Angeles in 1937, it’s narrated by former aspiring actress Lillian Frost turned realist department store salesgirl. Her ex-roommate Ruby Carroll has been murdered, and detectives question Lillian as they parted on bad terms. Not only did Ruby steal Lillian’s deceased mother’s brooch, but she’s been found in a glamorous gown stolen from Edith Head’s wardrobe department at Paramount. Edith is both sympathetic and practical and helps Lillian unravel Ruby’s mysteries that led to her death.

Featuring real-life characters in fiction can be tricky, but Patrick is up to the task. Making Head an adjunct to the investigation rather than a lead means she doesn’t overwhelm Lillian and neither do cameos by Bob Hope and Barbara Stanwyck. There’s an entertaining mix of gangsters and moguls, and they’re all drawn to the movie business, which seemed to drive Los Angeles in the 1930s. Head is not yet an Oscar winner in 1937, and so she’s bedeviled by studio politics and tied to the shaky future of her alcoholic boss, Travis Banton. She’s fiercely protective of him while extending a hand to Lillian. I hope these two find another mystery.