LAWRENCE BLOCK – The Topless Tulip Caper. Chip Harrison #4. Signet, paperback, 1998. Previously published as by Chip Harrison: Gold Medal P3274, paperback original, 1975.

   No Score (1970) and Chip Harrison Scores Again (1971), the first two books in Lawrence Block’s “Chip Harrison” series, all first published as by Chip Harrison, were largely sex farces with marginal criminous elements. In the first one, at least, a young lad named Chip Harrison who has never had sex does his best to change that situation.

   In the next two books, Make Out with Murder (1974) and this one, Chip has teamed up à la Archie Goodwin with a Nero Wolfe wanna-be detective named Leo Haig. The emphasis is on the detective work, but as Chip explains as he goes along, his editor at Gold Medal wants plenty of sex scenes too. Sex sells, he is told.

   The book is divided into three parts. Part one begins with Chip at a strip tease club where Haig’s latest client, Tulip Willing (not her real name), is working as a dancer. Well, strip tease is a misnomer as the dancers come out onto the stage totally nude to begin with, so there is no actual stripping involved.

   Chip describes the scene so well that I think any male reader may well wish he was there. Block is at his comedic best in part one, with a smile on every page, if not an out and out loud guffaw. What Haig has been hired to do by his client, an out and out knockout of feminine pulchritude, is to find out who killed her tank full of tropical fish.

   This has intrigued Haig because his particular obsession is not growing orchids but breeding tropical fish himself. But it is Tulip’s roommate, also a dancer (named Cherry Bounce) who is killed by curare (an unseen dart?) right as her act is coming to a close (while totally nude).

   Part two consists of Chip Harrison doing his Archie Goodwin routine, questioning suspects and so on, dallying once or twice in detail that Archie never ever got into.

   In part three Leo Haig takes over, playing Nero Wolfe to the hilt in front of a room full of all of the suspects as well as two grumpy representatives of the police department. I don’t think Lawrence Block does it as well as Rex Stout, but in its own way, part three works out in quite satisfactory fashion.

   I don’t know how you feel about reading a Nero Wolfe book with sex scenes in it, but Block is never a bad writer, and that is what this is. I’ll have to leave that particular question for you to decide for yourself. Speaking of sex scenes, one interesting aspect to the book is the ending in which Haig twits Chip a bit for being an unreliable narrator. Regarding their client, for example, did he or didn’t he?