Pipsqueak, by Brian M. Wiprud
Reviewed by Martin Kich
[This review was originally published in The Mystery Review.]
The novel's title refers to a squirrel who was one of three animal characters on The General Buster Show, a locally produced children's show of the 1950s that was unusual primarily because its little skits for the kiddies had explicit cold-war themes. In addition, General Buster's animal sidekicks were unusual because they were actual animals preserved by taxidermy and then transformed into puppets. The novel's protagonist, Garth Carson, is interested in Pipsqueak not only because he was once an avid fan of The General Buster Show, but also because he has a very unusual occupation: he is a collector, restorer, seller, and leaser of taxidermal specimens. While not actually a working taxidermist, Garth deals with all sorts of people who have unusual needs for dead animals that look almost as if they are alive--everyone from movie producers to museum directors, from photographers and retailers to decorators and collectors.
You may have noticed that I have used the word "unusual" with an unusual frequency in the previous paragraph, but this is a very unusual mystery novel. In fact, it might be categorized more precisely as an action-adventure novel. For Garth Carson does very little detecting, even for an amateur sleuth. He comes across Pipsqueak while scouring junk shops for additions to his taxidermic collection, almost immediately becomes a witness to a murder and the "kidnapping" of Pipsqueak, and from then on largely reacts to the evidence of a dark conspiracy that more reveals itself to him than is revealed by him. He is just nosey enough that the bad guys think first that he knows more than he does and then that he poses much more of a threat than he actually does. He is chased at least as much as he chases.
The novel is very reminiscent of the action-adventure serials of the 1930s and 1940s that were replayed on television in the 1950s--the sort of serials that served as the model for the Indiana Jones films. In those serials, the hero typically has a love interest, who is loyal to a fault while having an affectionately ironic sense of the hero's faults or limitations. In Pipsqueak, Angie Carson, a jewlery designer, is generally very accepting of her husband's peculiar occupation which has required, among other things, that their living room resemble a back room in a museum of natural history. The hero also typically has a sidekick with some odd physical and behavioral traits. In this case, the sidekick is a giant refugee from the Soviet gulag named Otto who is a jack-of-all-trades and who very much enjoys watching American women while they are walking. The narrator and characters even speak in a slang that is rather outdated but remains familiar: in the space of two randomly selected pages, there are words such as "geegaws," "shinola," "switcheroo," and "fritz" (as in "on the fritz").
The plot of the novel soon involves "retros," people who want to recapture the swing era so fanatically that the effort takes on a religious intensity. The retros are tied in with political fanatics and economic opportunists who conspire to use cold-war secrets to control the "masses." ("Science" in this sort of context is so quaintly speculative that it resembles medieval alchemy more than quantum physics.) With very little narrative indication of the multiple levels of improbability, an incredibly intricate conspiracy of international import comes undone because of the accidental involvement of a dealer in taxidermy, of his wife and his sidekick, and of his ne'er-do-well brother who finds redemption in his role. The story is very charming and even quite engaging, but it is ultimately a bit light, even as entertainment.
Much of the action depends on the device of false identities. In fact, there are so many characters who are not who they pretend to be or what they seem to be that it is easier to count the characters such as Garth, Angie, and Otto who are authentic, if eccentric. If Wiprud were writing a somewhat darker and more complex mystery, he might have done a good deal more with the possible connections between taxidermy and imposture, nostalgia, and popular culture. And he would have had to extend his characterizations beyond the broad strokes and the definition by idiosyncracy that he relies on here. This novel is good enough that it suggests a potential for skewed stories that are truly compelling rather than simply engaging and truly multilayered rather than simply intricate.