OVER EASY: A NURSERY CRIME
By Jasper Fforde
Viking: 386 pp., $24.95
By Paula L.
Woods, January 1, 2006,
Los Angeles Times
writer Jasper Fforde has been building a worldwide cadre of
readers since 2002's "The Eyre Affair," which introduced
Special Operative Thursday Next. Her adventures in an
alternate universe were a cleverly plotted, quirky gumbo of
literature, mystery and fantasy. But after four books,
Fforde's plots had become increasingly twisted, which
probably pleased long-term fans but may have befuddled those
who came to the series, shall we say, midstream of
consciousness. So the arrival of "The Big Over Easy," the
first book in a new Nursery Crime series, comes as a respite
and detour from the characters and literary vein Fforde had
so adeptly mined.
perhaps it's not a respite at all, since amid the wordplay
and literary allusions of the Thursday Next series, Fforde
managed not only to work in some biting commentary on
writing genre fiction but, it now appears, also might have
set up readers for the jump to the Nursery Crime universe.
In Thursday's third outing,
"The Well of Lost Plots," she encountered Reading Det.
Inspector Jack Spratt, who bemoaned the lack of originality
in a thriller in which he appears as a loner with a drinking
problem. Thursday's advice? Try something different, give up
the liquor and go home to the wife. "If things go well," she
added, "you might even be in … a sequel."
Thursday's words proved prophetic, since "The Big Over Easy"
features a slightly altered Jack, sans drinking problem and
now sporting a loving family and a pathetically clunky car.
The antithesis of the standard-issue English crime fighter,
Jack is a boring but basically decent guy, if you can
overlook the fact that he exhibits traits of several nursery
rhyme Jacks, including a propensity for causing the demise
of more than a few giants.
Jack toils in yet another
alternate universe, this one featuring crimes solved by
brilliant sleuths like the handsome Det. Chief Inspector
Friedland Chymes, "the most alpha of alpha males." Chymes
belongs to the exalted Guild of Detectives, which claims as
members the slightly skewed inspectors Moose and Dogleash.
guild won't admit Jack, because he hasn't published a
suitably twisted tale in Amazing Crime Stories or Sleuth
Illustrated. It's a failing that is not only personally
embarrassing to Jack, but also has implications for his
publicity-starved Nursery Crime Division. "Modern policing
isn't just about catching criminals," warns Jack's
commanding officer, Briggs. "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."
that could have been spoken by any big-city police
administrator, not to mention a publisher or network
television executive. Luckily, things begin to look up for
Jack and the Nursery Crime Division when Humperdinck
Jehoshaphat Aloysius Stuyvesant van Dumpty, a.k.a. Humpty
Dumpty, falls from a wall in a drunken stupor, or so
everyone wants to believe. But Jack wonders — could Dumpty
have been pushed? His dogged pursuit of the answer to that
question reveals corporate and political skulduggery that
plunges him, his sergeant/sidekick (the ambitious contrarian
Mary Mary) and their oddball colleagues into a whacked-out
world where, in addition to Dumpty's amorous conquests and
shady business dealings, readers learn he may also be
connected to the double murder of Mr. Christian and his wife
in Andersen's Wood.
"The Big Over Easy" is so
full of nursery rhyme references, puns and literary asides
(not to mention the occasional ad and illustration) that
it's hard not to laugh out loud while reading this
fantastical sendup of a police procedural. But like the best
novels of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, Fforde goes
beyond his genre, skewering everything from
celebrity-obsessed media to political demigods to the
pitifulness of law enforcement agencies whose mottoes have
devolved to "protect, serve and entertain the nation."
Although a passing knowledge of Mother Goose, Hans Christian
Andersen and the Brothers Grimm would help, "The Big Over
Easy" is a thoroughly enjoyable read for those without any
familiarity with the Thursday Next series. That said, there
is a special treat on Fforde's Nursery Crime website for
those who finish "The Big Over Easy" that will turn one's
assumptions about the book inside out — which seems fitting
for a writer who takes special delight in doing just that.