The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes (ISBN: 978-0-85766-831-8) is the story of a stuffed triceratops detective, Detective Tippy.
Detective Tippy lives in the Stillreal, a world constructed of abandoned ideas. These ideas, or Ideas, are the personification of people’s hopes, dreams, fears, and youthful coping strategies. Ideas are populated by Friends, creations of younger people as a vehicle for those dreams and fears. They first become “real” to their humans and, when the human can no longer use them or their human is forcibly disillusioned, the Idea becomes real in the Stillreal. Detective Tippy’s little girl created him to solves mysteries, which are often just the things people do that can by mysterious to a young person or child.
Detective Tippy is introduced to us when he is on a case investigating why a farmer’s corn is screaming instead of singing. It turns out to be a new Friend, a nightmare from a child. Friends in the Stillreal retain many of the youthful attributes of their creators, which means the nightmare Detective Tippy finds, Spindleman, is little more than a scared child itself.
The mystery begins to deepen when Detective Tippy watches a Friend get murdered. Generally, Friends who die in the Stillreal return after a period time, similar to how children will play characters who die, but are rejuvenated or resurrected after a couple of minutes. Except that this time, an imaginary creature actually dies. And it’s Detective Tippy’s job to find out who killed them and why.
Hayes imagines the impact of real life on our imaginary worlds. He looks at the imaginary worlds of children and asks “what happened” to all the creations we make when we are young. He also takes a cue from Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit in his basic construct of his world; similar to Williams’ creation, when a child loves a toy or idea in the real world sufficiently, it becomes Real. Detective Tippy was Real to his little girl, Sandra, until events forced them apart and then he became real in the Stillreal.
But where Williams’ toys actually become the real life versions of the toy they were, Hayes’ toys keep their basic childlike qualities of being a toy. Thus, real life issues like real death are nearly unmanageable for the characters, even as they would be nearly unmanageable for a child. Hayes also expands the idea of imaginary friends becoming real by including the worlds of imagination that can be created by people that only find form in drawings and stories, such as superheroes and cartoons.
Hayes’ Detective Tippy is a realized character. For being a stuffed yellow triceratops, Detective Tippy is a conflicted and very human protagonist. Detective Tippy’s reason for existence is to solve mysteries, though in a world populated by the creations of people’s imaginations, “mystery” can have significantly whimsical overtones; a rough case can mean Detective Tippy drowns his sorrows in root beer at the local “bar,” which is nothing more than a soda fountain with tough-talking toys as customers. When he has to face a mystery lacking in whimsy, such as real murder, Detective Tippy struggles just as people struggle with working outside their comfort zone and no amount of root beer can assuage the pain.
The Imaginary Corpse is not Young Adult, but it is definitely suitable for adolescents. There are some mature themes that are touched on, but are not explicit. There is a darkness in the story sufficient to give adult readers a chill, but not so heavy as to alienate younger readers, such as teens.
Death and the pain of personal loss is present as a theme throughout the story, but Hayes only hints at the individual stories of the characters. This distancing of character’s backstory, such as Detective Tippy’s story of how he got to the Stillreal, is consistent with how many people deal with their pain in real life. Explanations are glossed over and other people are only allowed the briefest of descriptions. When Hayes applies that psychology to avatars of innocence, such as toys and cartoons, he creates an inherently sympathetic character. Even villains that Detective Tippy faces have their own pathos that gives them depth. He must also face the pain of being unable to prevent harm to others.
The Imaginary Corpse is both a fun, easy read as well as an examination of the power of imagination to both hurt and heal.