The murder mystery of Waldo Chicken Wakes the Dead: A Murder Mystery of Unusual Proportions begins with a cat of unusual proportions, a large tom named Mr. Woo. When Constable O’Toole, the creator or interpreter of Waldo Walrus and his head-sitting chicken, sets out to bring the wayward cat home, he finds himself face down in someone else’s shallow grave and neck deep in a murder mystery. The only witnesses are Mr.Woo, who’s not talking, and Waldo and the Chicken, who only talk to Connie in the most disparaging of voices.
The idea of an artist who talks to his creations could be a clever way of avoiding the Chandler-clone narrative voice that plagues mystery novels to this day. Waldo is a grumpy, obliviously perceptive cetacean, dissatisfied with both his Chicken and his cartoonist. He’s also a decent fellow with the banter, leaving Connie in the dust in all their debates. But this device is also the source of one of the great plot cracks in the story. It’s impossible to tell if the reader is supposed to accept Waldo/Chicken as real, or just the products of Connie’s imagination. But sometimes the duo are confined to artist’s representations of themselves, sometime they seem to roam freely, and sometimes they deposit clues to the plot that only one of their avatars might have seen, unknown by any of the human characters. No help comes from the other members of the cast, who sometimes mock Connie’s imaginary conversations and sometimes react with fear and awe to his mystic powers of contacting cartoon walruses. This indeterminate reality worked for Calvin and Hobbes; it’s less effective in the sustained plot of a book, especially a mystery tale.
Figment or otherworldly visitor, Waldo Walrus is at least a steady character, able to fit in with the strange cast that lives along Hunter Drive. Connie evidently sees himself as a wacky cartoonist kept in check by his vocally long-suffering wife, Evelyn, but his behavior seems about as wacky as an I Love Lucy rerun next to the other residents of their neighborhood. Vivian, the former movie actress, strides through the entire book in costume. A femme fatale calling herself Becky Sawyer flirts with every male on the block with all the subtlety of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. And Mr.Woo, the cat whose roaming habits open the entire case, sheds his presence by reputation throughout the story.
Waldo Chicken sometimes works very well, mostly when Connie stops thinking about what a crazy cartoonist he is and turns the first-person view on his eclectic neighborhood of movie stars, professors, rummage sale millionaires, and psychics. The mystery itself is not particularly tempting, seeming rather dull and standard until the standard unmasking scene comes through in genuinely funny three-part harmony. By story’s end, it seems the grumpy old walrus is correct: Waldo Chicken could be a star, if he could just shake that dimbulb cartoonist.