If Dashiell Hammett’s ghost taught a group of children about morality using furry creatures and Barbie dolls, his narrative would probably resemble Nelly Reifler’s first novel, Elect H. Mouse State Judge. But Reifler’s cartoonish hard-boiled tale about a corrupt politician rodent has more in common with sharp modern noir novels and R-rated thrillers than with caricatures or children’s stories.
H. Mouse is running for state judge. But disaster strikes, jeopardizing his chances in the race. Margo and Susie, Mouse’s young daughters, are kidnapped and held hostage by a small band of religious fanatics. Mouse fears for their safety and wishes he could notify the authorities, but it’s the eve of the most important election of his life and he has reasons not to go to the police. In order to protect his past from public scrutiny, the rodent hires Barbie and Ken, a pair of shady private investigators who behave more like mercenaries than detectives. While the dolls try to find Mouse’s daughters, the girls are being brainwashed by a man who insists on turning them into special vessels by giving them the Ancient Teachings from the Book of Doctrines. If the girls aren’t found before the election, Mouse’s career could be over, but the same will happen if he’s forced to go to the police for help. Ultimately, he’ll have to trust Barbie and Ken’s devious ways and hope they get the girls back in time to keep up his political charade.
Reifler’s world walks the line between kid-friendly dreamscapes populated by anthropomorphic animals and the harsh, political, oversexualized modern cities in which many contemporary crime novels take place. This dichotomy might confuse some readers, but the prose ensures the confusion doesn’t last long, and Reifler quickly establishes that this is not for young audiences:
Barbie and Ken were fucking. They were fucking and screwing and doing it. They did it like bunnies and dogs and horses. Poolside, they humped, slamming against each other, grinding, wedging their legs into each other’s crotches.
This bluntness is one of the recurring elements that appear whenever the narrative focuses on the plastic dolls. It works well because the humor and strange sex offer relief from the anxious father’s emotional conundrum and professional anguish. Also, the brusqueness with which these characters are depicted and their carnal, brutish, shady nature contrast in interesting ways with Skipper’s tender, juvenile, and more philosophical preoccupations. Skipper is Barbie’s daughter, and she adds a touch of surreal contemplation:
She walked in the dark to the elevator and took it down to the first floor. Outside, it was warm and she could hear the parrots chattering in the driveway. She gazed out at the moonlit landscape. She tried to remember the first time she’d ever seen it, but nothing came to her. But she knew she had a past, because she remembered a different time. It had been a time when she’d believed she was in some kind of transitional phase and that she would soon become like Barbie. This had not happened. But surely the fact that she had memories meant that time was passing. And if that were true, didn’t it mean she was always changing after all, along with everything else?
While all of the above make Elect H. Mouse State Judge enjoyable, the narrative feels forcefully shortened. There are no plot holes, but there are situations that are never fully explored and end up feeling like unfulfilled promises. For example, Mouse’s past is never revealed, so his anxiety becomes a mystery that almost overshadows whatever is going on with his daughter’s abduction. Also, Barbie’s new love for her daughter, which comes at the end, offers closure for her character, but Skipper is relegated to her role as a daughter and her own profound musings are left unattended.
The second weak point of Elect H. Mouse State Judge is that Reifler never exploits the elements and freedom offered by the genres she draws from, so the book is well-written and engaging, but not groundbreaking. She takes full advantage of what noir has to offer, but replacing her characters with animals and dolls and adding a few unusual touches falls a bit flat in a literary landscape in which absurdist and bizarro literature are constantly pushing the boundaries of weirdness and imagination.
Elect H. Mouse State Judge is different and amusing, and Reifler’s prose, knack for dialogue, and sporadic philosophical reveries outweigh the story’s shortcomings. Anyone looking for an exotic morsel to devour between lengthy narratives should give this one a try.