- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 30, 2005


By Jasper Fforde

Viking, $24.95, 380 pages


The sleuth: Detective Inspector Jack Spratt, a giant killer with an irresistible desire to climb huge beanstalks. The deceased: Humperdink Stuyvesant Van Dumpty III, aka Humpty Dumpty, a big egg with an even bigger pocketbook and a taste for young women. The crime: a fall off a wall that looks increasingly like foul (or fowl) play.

Sounds rather silly, doesn’t it? But miraculously, Jasper Fforde has exploited childhood story elements and created a gripping, funny, intelligent mystery. Mr. Fforde, who lives in Wales, is no stranger to genre skipping. His series of Thursday Next mysteries, which began with 2001’s “The Eyre Affair,” combined literary fiction, mystery, science fiction and satire to great effect. Those four books take place in a strange alternative reality where people regard literature as important, and a criminal mastermind who plans to steal Jane Eyre from Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel must be stopped at all costs.

The surprise success of those novels has led Mr. Fforde to begin a new series, the first book of which is “The Big Over Easy.” The Nursery Crime books feature the aforementioned Jack Spratt, who is head of Reading Police Department’s Nursery Crime Division. Incidents involving characters from children’s stories — who live side-by-side with normal humans — fall under his jurisdiction.

It’s a thankless job. The department doesn’t offer much support and besides not being able to eat any fat, Spratt doesn’t seem to be able to make many prosecutions either. The continued existence of his department is on the line after he failed to convict the three pigs of the premeditated murder of the Big Bad Wolf.

It doesn’t help that Spratt is constantly eclipsed by another detective on the force, the legendary Friedland Chymes. Chymes got his fame — and his ticket out of the NCD — by taking credit for Jack’s near-impossible capture of the psychopathic serial killer Gingerbreadman. Chymes looks down on Spratt, but he sees publicity potential in the Humpty case and will stop at nothing to have it for himself.

Humpty, it turns out, had plenty of enemies. With an ex-wife, hundreds of liaisons, ties to the mob, and rival businessmen, this is going to be one tough egg to crack. Jack’s investigations take him into the seediest underbelly of the Grimm’s Road world. Adultery, theft, murder, even shady corporate dealings — this isn’t your grandmother’s copy of Hans Christian Andersen.

Like the creators of cartoons for adults like “The Simpsons” and “South Park,” Mr. Fforde uses fantasy to dissect real life in ways he might not get away with if his characters were more grounded in reality. His world, for example, takes our media-obsessed culture to its perhaps logical conclusion. “Modern policing isn’t just about catching criminals,” the superintendent explains. “It’s about good copy and ensuring that cases can be made into top-notch documentaries on the telly. Public approval is the all-important currency these days, and police budgets ebb and flow on the back of circulation and viewing figures.”

It explains why Spratt has such poor luck. Nursery characters aren’t always good candidates for the chopping block. As the superintendent says, “it’s a public-perception thing, Spratt. Piglets are cute; wolves aren’t. You might as well try and charge the farmer’s wife with cruelty when she cut off the mice’s tails with a carving knife.” “I did,” Spratt responds.

The familiar world of the nursery is also the perfect backdrop for Mr. Fforde’s uncanny wit. Humpty’s Armani suits are hung on “hangers shaped like hula hoops.” Wee Willie Winkie’s wife irons his shirts — “on a wok to get the right shape, of course.” And it is a brief running joke that no one can figure out whether he wore a cravat or a cummerbund, given his shape.

The characters sometimes find all this as funny as we do. “Easter was always bad for him, as you can imagine, and whenever he saw a cooking program featuring omelettes or eggs Benedict, he would fly off the handle,” Humpty’s ex-wife tells Spratt when he wonders if the big egg could have committed suicide. “Sometimes he would wake up at night in a sweat, screaming, ‘Help, help, take me off, I’m boiling.’ I’m sorry, Officer, do you find something funny?” One cannot help but laugh at such high-minded silliness.

The Thursday Next novels owed much of their appeal to how smart they made their readers feel. Mr. Fforde’s many allusions to classic literature gave eggheads a chance to show off their knowledge, if only to themselves. The Nursery Crime series will be no different. When a bleary eyed night-shift worker answers the door, for example, anyone who remembers the insomniac Wee Willie Winkie will smile knowingly.

Seasoned mystery lovers will also enjoy Mr. Fforde’s send-ups of the genre. “The Big Over Easy” contains all the elements of a mystery, thriller and hard-boiled noir: rival detectives, one angelic, one corrupt; a tough-minded superior who cares more about perception than justice; and a partnership that starts off cold, but gets grudgingly warmer.

The book also has a few of the problems familiar to such genres. The case is “solved” about a half dozen times, and has almost as many trick endings as the last “Lord of the Rings” movie. Some of the plot elements seem a bit unbelievable — but that seems like an odd criticism of a book about the death of a character from a nursery rhyme.

These are minor quibbles in a book that is such rollicking good fun. Mr. Fforde writes smooth, flawless prose that makes you feel less guilty for reading something so entertaining. With “The Big Over Easy,” he proves once again that he is our best thinking person’s genre writer.

Kelly Jane Torrance is fiction editor of Doublethink, arts and culture editor of Brainwash, and a book columnist for The American Enterprise Online.

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