big over easy

It’s not easy being an egg.

“It was the week following Easter in Reading and no one could remember the last sunny day.”

Long time readers of this blog will undoubtedly be aware of my love of Agatha Christie. No other writer has been reviewed or spoken of with such wondrous tones as she. But, truth be told, she shares her position of my favourite writer. Maybe she’s my favourite dead author, or my favourite female author, as the second is both living and male: Jasper Fforde.

A master of wordplay, puns, literary knowledge and general comedy, Fforde has penned a whole bunch of books in different series’ that are all equally funny and brilliant. I’m re-reading him this year so there will be a lot of waxing lyrical about his genius throughout 2016. However, we begin now with the first in the Nursery Crime series, The Big Over Easy.

The book is set in a version of Reading where nursery rhyme characters, and indeed, all characters from the oral tradition exist and have celebrity status. DI Jack Spratt heads up the Nursery Crime Division, responsible for dealing with any crimes involving these people, be it breaking up a straw-into-gold racket, or trying to convict three little pigs of the murder of Mr Wolff. He’s just been assigned a new recruit, DS Mary Mary, a fairly contrary young woman with a string of unfortunate ex-boyfriends and a desire to be out of the NCD as soon as possible.

However, things take a turn for the interesting when Humperdinck Stuyvesant Van Dumpty III (better known to most people as Humpty Dumpty), well known businessman and egg is found at the bottom of his favourite wall, smashed to pieces. Spratt and Mary must rope in witnesses and work out whether he fell or was pushed – and if so, who by? – all the while trying to maintain a readability in case their story ever gets published in an issue of Amazing Crime Stories. Meanwhile, super-sleuth Friedland Chymes is trying to take the case away from under Spratt’s nose, the world’s second largest footcare business, Spongg’s, is about to go down the drain, and Spratt’s mother has got a beanstalk growing at an alarming rate in her back garden.

There’s so much going on in this book, I just feel I want to talk about it all, but I must be careful not to give away too much. Firstly, we find ourselves dealing with nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters, with none of the other characters seeming to be aware that there’s anything strange about this. Along with the aforementioned Humpty Dumpty, Jack Spratt and Mary Mary, other traditional characters making an appearance include narcoleptic night-worker Wee Willie Winkie, penniless landlady Mother Hubbard, long-haired and beautiful Rapunzel, kleptomanic son of a famous flautist, Tom Thomm, Monday-born millionaire Solomon Grundy, the crazed psychopath the Gingerbreadman, and notorious crime boss Georgio Porgia. Fforde takes this madness and runs with it, bringing so many of these classic characters into the modern world and giving them a new life, showing the darkness that sits behind the stories we know.

Humpty, in happier times.

Humpty, in happier times.

However, it’s also not only a murder mystery but a complete parody of them, dissecting all the associated tropes and having the detectives all get their stories published in the manner of Holmes and Watson. They must, therefore, solve crimes in an entertaining way that will ensure high readership. Along the way, the tropes are played with hugely, having news reports that state that identical twins are no longer acceptable in crimes, and that anagram-based clues can’t be used as evidence in court.

Some of the background to this story makes a little more sense after the third book in Fforde’s Thursday Next series, and a discussion on that will come in good time, but it doesn’t mean this book isn’t possible to read. Every character is great fun, from the nursery rhyme figures to the more regular cast, such as the other staff working at the NCD and Jack’s family (his first wife died because she ate nothing but fat, of course).

It’s a great introduction to Fforde though, and shows that his mind is something quite wonderful. Not only does he combine the above nonsense, but he enjoys adding in extra flourishes, such as the fact that aliens have landed (mostly because they were curious as to why we never broadcast them a third series of Fawlty Towers) and have been accepted into society, the country seems to be run by history’s only honest politician, the Jellyman, there’s a lot of emphasis on the importance of good foot care, and Prometheus, the god who gave fire to mankind, is lodging in Jack’s spare room. The book also affectionately mocks existing famous detectives, giving us cameos by characters including Hercule Porridge, Miss Maple and Inspector Moose.

Most remarkable of all, however, is the fact that Fforde manages to stay hilarious for nearly four hundred pages. The whole thing is done with its tongue pressed firmly in its cheek, but it nonetheless works as a proper story, and you’re soon as blase about the idea of an egg wandering around Reading as the characters are. As is usual in most of Fforde’s work, each chapter also opens with an excerpt from a newspaper article, book or speech that gives more colour to the world and fills in some extra story and allows for more jokes. Examples of these here include the trial of Rumplestiltskin (it took seven days and 8,632 guesses), the story of scientists who have developed technology to transfigure pumpkins, and details on the upcoming nuptials of the Owl and the Pussycat.

For anyone who likes their literature a bit strange, but very, very clever, then this would be a good place to start in the worlds of Jasper Fforde. Few can match him, and I find it just a little odd that the year his first book was published was the year Douglas Adams died. If his soul went anywhere, it found its way into Fforde.