TOPLESS is a comic moral tale told in the form of a murder mystery. Mike Wilson’s sister-in-law Ethel asks him to return to his native New York from a small Nebraska town when his brother Tony disappears. She wants Mike to take over Tony’s restaurant, which turns out to be a seedy topless bar in Queens. The police have no idea where Tony is, or whether he is still alive.
Mike is maneuvered into staying with the bar by Ethel, who plays on his pity by claiming she must have the income if her daughters are to survive. He meets various seedy characters, including Leonard, the manager of the place, who seems to have ties to the mob; Joe Solomon, a former cop who educates Mike in what is really going on behind the scenes at the club and encourages him to get rid of the drug -dealing and illegal gambling; the Gaucho, a sinister figure who commands gunmen; Bert, the bouncer, a gigantic Trekkie; and various dancers. Several of the women try to seduce Mike, but he resists until Berry, a girl who had known him when he was a teenager, reveals that she knows he is a priest. They begin an affair.
Dead bodies turn up frequently, beginning with a former dancer who had been rumored to be having an affair with Tony and who had also disappeared. Other dancers’ dead bodies, grotesquely arranged, also appear. Mike’s highly moral fiancee, Kay, arrives from Nebraska and finds out about his affair with Berry, complicating his life further when she announces that she is through with him. When Berry is found dead, the police are convinced that Mike killed her, and presumable the other dead women as well. Mike wrestles with his conscience and ties to resign from the priesthood.
In the end the mystery is solved, the murderer turns out to have been mad, and Mike is reconciled with Kay. He leaves New York for good and gives up the priesthood, but hopes to return to his calling when he has grown more mature. The serious religious content of TOPLESS, although it sometimes seems to disappear in the welter of the comic situation and the grisly murders, remains a constant in the novel. Mano’s style, apart from annoying and inconsistent contractions in the characters’ speech, is admirable suited to his purpose.