Block, Lawrence: (204) The Topless Tulip Caper

Lawrence Block’s The Topless Tulip Caper is an affectionate homage to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin books. Chip Harrison (first seen in No Score, a non-mystery) has been hired by Leo Haig, reclusive genius detective, to be his Archie:

“Simon What’s-his-name—”

“Barckover.”

“Barckover, right.” I was supposed to remember things like Barckover’s last name, Haig had told me, just as I was supposed to be able to repeat all conversations verbatim. If Archie Goodwin can do something, I’m supposed to train myself to do it, too. (Sometimes, let me tell you, Archie Goodwin gives me a stiff pain.) “Barckover,” I said again, carefully training my memory. “And Andrew Merganser—”

“You mean Mallard.”

“Well, I knew it was some kind of duck. The hell with Archie Goodwin, anyway.”

Indeed, Haig’s hired Chip in part because Chip’s a writer: “If it weren’t for Dr. Watson, he says, who would have heard of Sherlock Holmes? If Archie Goodwin never sat down at a typewriter, who would be aware of Nero Wolfe? Anyway, that’s why he hired me, to make Leo Haig The Detective a household phrase, and that’s how come you get to read all this.”

The first half or so of the book is quite amusing, laying out the conceit of the book and introducing the characters. (It’s a murder of tropical fish, which turns into a murder of a person. Did I mention that fish : Haig :: orchids : Nero Wolfe?) The second half is less so, as the freshness wears off. I think the weird little interlude with Ruthellen marked the turning point for me; I was going to say that it left a bad taste in my mouth, but that would be a really unfortunate phrase, so I’ll just say that I found it unpleasant. (There was something like it in No Score, which I forgot to mention then. Chip, perhaps because he’s a 1970s kind of guy, has an attitude towards sex that I’m just not so comfortable with.)

More importantly, as the book goes on Haig gets more and more like Nero Wolfe, which just points up the inescapable fact: Chip Harrison is no Archie Goodwin.

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