Friday, June 5, 2015

FFB: Who Killed the Pie Man? - Phillips Lore

Leo Roi is a lawyer and a private eye at the same time. Oh now let me correct that. He calls himself an investigative attorney which really amounts to a lawyer who likes to spend most of his time playing sleuth prior to taking up a case that might go to court. In his debut novel Who Killed the Pie Man? (1975) Roi is asked to clear the name of a Northwestern University student implicated in the double murder of a professor and female student. Dr. Wren, the professor victim, is well known in his Evanston, Illinois numismatic circle. A rare collection he at one time owned -- ancient gold coins dating back to the days of the Roman Empire -- seems to be the motive for the murders. He also is known for haunting the local bakeries and consuming pies and other pastries in large quantities leading to his nickname of "the Pie Man".

Roi first visits the home of the female student where he interviews her father, a wheelchair bound millionaire with a temptress wife half his age. The young wife later asks Roi to help her find out who has been blackmailing her and her husband. A lot of poolside chats with the temptress lounging in swimwear. Lots of 1970s girl watching and writing to match the mood.

We're in Chandler territory here with a 1970s flavor. Although "Phillips Lore" (pseudonym of novelist Terrence Lore Smith)dedicates this private eye novel to Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin the entire plot seems to be a conflated rewrite of both The Big Sleep and The High Window. T. H. Koenig, the disabled millionaire, is an obvious update of General Sternwood of The Big Sleep. Joanna Koenig, the 20-something wife is a stand-in for Carmen Sternwood. Dr. Wren is Big Sleep's Geiger, the murdered bookstore owner who deals in pornography on the side. And the Roman coin collection is the stunt double for the Brasher dubloon of The High Window. It's practically a photocopy of Chandler.

The whole book reeks of 1970s hipster nonsense. Cocktails and coffee seem to be the only beverages these people drink. Alcohol is served at all times of the day and night. Roi is offered a cocktail right after breakfast in one scene. People talk to each other via answering services. Not an answering machine in sight here when they were practically household items by the mid 1970s. Most ridiculous are the numerous paragraphs devoted to clothing descriptions. Roi likes to talk about his eccentric wardrobe and his indulgent pastime of dressing up. Here's a classic example of the asides into the land of his bizarre sartorial choices:
I was no longer the racetrack tout. Now I was, in Miss Jean Brodie's phrase, of the crème da la crème; crushed velvet, midnight-blue, double-breasted tux; powder-blue, ruffle-front shirt; crushed velvet, midnight-blue, large floppy bow tie; as I said I like clothes and I spend too much money on them.
First, what's with the overuse of the hyphen? Second, what adult man in the 1970s wore a powder blue tux and thought he was fashionable? Back in my high school days (when this book was first published) the teenage boys who wore powder blue tuxes to the prom were mocked. Leo Roi also adopts the look of a 19th century dandy and a red leather jacket wearing Huggy Bear wannabe. The whole book is filled with these detailed wardrobe updates. I can only hope that Smith meant these to be tongue in cheek commentary on 1970s fashion trends. What with Leo Roi's clothes horse mentality, the 1970s brand name dropping, his taste in fine dining (beef wellington, Riesling wine - really?) he comes off as an utter poseur of ersatz 1970s sophistication. Maybe this is the point.

There are troubled college football players, a scarred and crippled Viet Nam vet, several intellectual professors demanding that justice be done, a couple of crooked cops. Oh and mobsters turn up too. What was a 1970s crime novel without at least one showing of a Mafia character or drug dealing? Yes, there's some talk of pot smoking, cocaine use and dealing, too.

To be fair Smith does have a flair for writing. When he veers away from his supposed tongue in cheek commentary the story has a more mature viewpoint; his tone is serious, the writing incisive and trenchant. Smith delves into Roi's past and we learn he is the privileged son of Andre Roi, a millionaire whose fortune is traced back to the Prohibition era and the Roi family dynasty in bootleg booze. Roi is understandably ashamed of his past. Ironically, his family history will ultimately reveal how he is connected to the missing Roman gold coins. Smith has a lot to say about wealth and privilege and how both can easily give way to greed and corruption.

Terrence Lore Smith wrote three books with Leo Roi. The third, Murder Behind Closed Doors (1980), is a much better book with an unusual locked room plot. Probably his best known book is The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1971) featuring Webster Daniels, a gentleman thief with a world view very similar to Leo Roi's. It was made into a movie starring Ryan O'Neal and led to a not so successful sequel called The Devil and Webster Daniels. Smith had an unfortunately short writing career and life. He died in a freak auto accident in Colorado in 1988. He was only 46.

Leo Roi Private Eye Novels
Who Killed the Pie Man? (1975)
The Looking Glass Murders (1980)
Murder Behind Closed Doors (1980)

7 comments:

  1. What an enjoyable review. Thanks John.

    The seventies in India were dominated by the polyester.

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    1. Oh yes, polyester was everywhere in my Connecticut hometown too. Tie dyed shirts, flare legged trousers, and platform shoes were also popular. I've read tow of the three Leo Roi books and I'm thinking of reading the second, The Looking Glass Murders, sometime later in the summer. I just flipped through the first pages and there are numerous allusions to Lewis Carroll's characters with epigrams from his books and poetry at the start of each chapter. It seems like someone named Alice is the first murder victim. Could be a trip into the land of surreal humor.

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  2. Uh, midnight blue tux, it's the shirt that was powder blue, but I'm being picky since it all sounds dreadful, as does the book.There were a lot of these type of things written in the Seventies, as I recall, along with a lot of James Bondish spy stories.

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  3. I can see even Moira wanting to call the fashion police! Mind you, the blue tux description sounds a bit like a riff on the description of Marlowe from the opening of THE BIG SLEEP too! I do remember quite liking the movie version of THIEF but it's been yonks since I came across that one

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  4. I am caught between "Yay! Another mystery with an academic flair!" and the horrors of the 70s fashion play-by-play. But I may just have to find a copy...

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    1. My favorite parts had to do with the Evanston seting, the Northwestern campus details and the rest of the Chicago/Northshore atmosphere. It was spot on authentic. This is a real academic mystery as I think of them. I think you'd enjoy those parts.

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    2. Okay....you've sold me. Now to hunt down a copy. :-)

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