You need to forgive me if I’ve been gushing a lot about Lawrence Block lately. He published the majority of his back list last year as e-books and he keeps holding sales. Of course every time he holds a sale, I have to run over to Amazon and start 1-clicking titles for my Kindle. I read a lot of Block’s work back in the day, so this is like being reconnected with an old friend.
One series I had never read before is the Chip Harrison series. Block first published these under a pseudonym, and his publishers kept changing the titles, so I never discovered Block was the author. Apparently, No Score, the first Chip Harrison novel, came about when Block was still working for a soft-porn mill. He realized there was something special about this book, that it was good enough to qualify as a “real book.” Here is what Block has to say in Afterthoughts:
No Score is the first of four novels featuring Chip Harrison, and they all bore the lead character’s byline when they first appeared as Fawcett paperbacks. The working title of No Score was The Lecher in the Rye, which sums it up well enough; it’s a picaresque account of a young man’s desperate attempt to become sexually experienced.
Fawcett did very well with the book, and a couple of years later I wrote a sequel. And, because I liked the voice, I wanted to write a third book, but how many times could one lad lose his virginity? So in the third book I put him to work for a private detective, and books three and four are mysteries that could be called Nero Wolfe pastiches.
The funny thing is, I’ve never been a huge fan of coming-of-age stories. Especially those involving young men getting their horndog on. Chip charmed me, though. He’s a mixture of tough and tender, decency and desire, that makes him an interesting narrator. Maybe it’s my age. I doubt I would have liked Chip when I was a teenager or even into my 20s or 30s. “Stupid boy. What a stupid, selfish boy,” would have been running through my head as I read. Back then, I wouldn’t have understood him. I would have fixated on the sexy parts and missed completely the thread about finding one’s self and how easy it is to lose one’s way and the struggle it takes to get back on track. In the second book of the series, Chip Harrison Scores Again, Chip’s antics drove me nuts. I was so angry about some of his decisions. Again, maybe it’s my age, I could understand why he did what he did. Despite his failings, I wished him well. I certainly wanted to read more of his adventures.
I dunno, maybe that’s what For Mature Audiences Only truly means.
Chip comes into his own when he starts working for private investigator, Leo Haig, a genius who believes Nero Wolfe was real. Because Haig wants to be recognized as a great detective, he hires Chip to be his Archie Goodwin. Make Out With Murder and The Topless Tulip Caper are funny, funny books. I’ve never been a huge fan of deductive mysteries, far preferring the gritty stuff with lots of science and police procedure. Readers hoping for the hard stuff in these books will be deeply disappointed. You can’t read this series with those expectations. You read it for Chip.
But this was business. Leo Haig had a case and a client, and his client was performing at the Treasure Chest, and since Leo Haig was no more likely to hie himself off to a topless club than I was to enter a monastery, I, Chip Harrison, was elected to serve as Haig’s eyes, ears, nose and throat.
Which explains why I had just tucked a ten-dollar bill into a very large and callused hand.
‘Ten bucks?’ said the owner of the hand. ‘For ten bucks you could go to a massage parlor and get a fancy hand job.’
‘I’m allergic to hand lotion.’
‘I get this horrible rash.’
Chip is a charmer all right.
These stories can also be read as period pieces, with a voice and flavor that’s very much locked in the 1960s. The themes and characters are timeless, making them as readable and enjoyable now as they were then.
Block says it annoys him when fans beg him to write more stories about their favorite characters. I am very tempted to add my voice to the clamor and beg him to write more Chip stories (and Block wouldn’t have that problem if he didn’t write such wonderful characters in the first place, so it’s his own damned fault). I’ll behave, though, and savor what is now my favorite non-series.
Chip Harrison novels (in order):