Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Make Out with Murder - Chip Harrison

The dedication page to Make Out With Murder (1974) says: "This is for REX STOUT, whoever he might be." If you're one of those ardent readers who scrutinizes every page of a book this dedication will not only bring a smile to your face but will provide you with a tantalizing hint as to what lies within its pages. For this is not just another book starring and written by Chip Harrison exaggeratedly dubbed "a one man anti-chastity movement" on the cover it is a love letter to the traditional mystery novel.

Why the Stout dedication? And why that crack implying no one knows him? Well it's all due to Leo Haig, an aspiring private detective who has modeled himself on the practice of Nero Wolfe. And he actually believes -- as many people believe of Sherlock Holmes -- that Wolfe is a real person living a reclusive life somewhere in Manhattan where Haig has also set up business. He also believes that Rex Stout is the clever pseudonym chosen another real person, Archie Goodwin who according to Haig is not only Wolfe's right hand man but his most respected biographer. You'll have to read the book to find out Haig's theory about the origin of the Stout pen name. It's insanely funny and almost believable.

But it isn't just Wolfe that Haig admires. He knows and honors all the great detectives of fiction. In fact everything he knows about being a detective he has learned from his extensive collection of murder mysteries that crowd the shelves of his home. Look carefully and you'll also find several fish tanks artfully inserted in the many bookcases in Haig's house. Just like Wolfe has his obsession with orchids Leo Haig is overly devoted to the care of his large collection of rare tropical fish.

But enough about Haig. The book is really about Chip Harrison, who Haig has handpicked to be his own Archie Goodwin.  This third book is more of a first book in that it introduces Leo Haig and refashions Chip as his legman and biographer. It's a legitimate murder mystery serving as Chip's crash course in dealing with the temptations of femmes fatale of all ages and hair color. As if he hadn't already had his fill of women. In the previous two books Chip is a randy young man itching to lose his virginity. Those books are all about sex and bawdy humor not crime and dark motives.

Chip is head over heels in love with doomed Melanie Trelawney who has a morbid fear of dying. Two of Melanie's sisters died violently and suspiciously and she is certain she will succumb to a similar fate. Within days her death wish comes true and Chip is convinced that her death by heroin overdose is a vicious murder. Too many things are fishy. Like how Melanie was found dead on her air mattress bed but was overly cautious with sharp objects being anywhere near the bed let alone on it. Leo and Chip team up and show up the loutish cops who seem more interested in closing the case as another junkie suicide than in finding Melanie's killer.

The real fun reading this book is in revelling in Block's combination of ribald humor and Chip's slang-filled narration expressing a youthful worldview that comes across as utterly authentic. Detective fiction fans will enjoy the seemingly endless references to crime writers and their books. Haig promises his young employee that by drinking deep of murder mysteries he'll gain the knowledge he needs. Chip is impressed when Haig tells that all he knows of philately he picked up from The Scarlet Ruse, a Travis McGee book. Similarly, Sayers' The Nine Tailors taught him about the art of bell ringing. When Chip learns that one of the murder suspects is a numismatist he follows his employer/tutor's advice and reads Chandler's The High Window plus a book by Michael Innes to learn all he can about coin collecting.

Chip does all the legwork, gets beat up, and has a few bedroom interludes but it is Haig who comes up with the dazzling solution. This case of multiple murder will turn out to be more reminiscent of Ross Macdonald than Rex Stout -- a bit of detective fiction trivia Haig cannot help pointing out to Chip. While the killer may be a bit easy to spot as the body count climbs that doesn't mean this isn't worthy of your attention. I had a lot of fun meeting Chip and Leo. And I'm eager to read about them again in their second (sadly last) adventure set partially in a strip club and called The Topless Tulip Caper. Stay tuned for more...

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