Jasper Fforde’s The Big Over Easy

imageYou may be familiar with Fforde’s previous (and ongoing) Thursday Next detective series, starring the detective of the same name, whose specialty is crimes of a “literary nature”. The Big Over Easy marks the beginning of the Nursery Crimes series, a slight departure, though still well in the same quirky neighbourhood that Fforde’s chosen to explore.

Our hero is underdog Detective Inspector, Jack Spratt, head of the NCD (Nursery Crimes Division), in Reading, Berkshire. The necessity of such a division to handle the unique challenges of a “nursery-related inquiry” was first argued by Detective Chief Inspector Jack Horner in 1958, and his legacy has been carried on by dedicated, underfunded, and overlooked officers ever since.

Unfortunately for DI Spratt, his beloved NCD has become something of a dumping ground for those officers who don’t fit in anywhere else, and many regard it as a something of a career black hole. This is largely because funding and career prestige is largely allocated based on public approval, which in turn is based on readable cases to publish in “Amazing Crime Stories”. Spratt concerns himself with good policework and doesn’t worry so much about twists and turns and dramatic timing, which is why he has to make do with less resources than his former colleague Friedland Chymes, who has a greater sense of showmanship (but a lesser sense of civic duty). As Spratt’s superior 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.”

The Big Over Easy concerns the suspicious death of a certain well-known womanizing, alcoholic egg. When Jack arrives on the scene, his superior brings him up to speed: “It looks like he died from injuries sustained falling from a wall.” This kind of straight-faced reference is typical of the novel. The humour is appropriately UK subtle, but less dry than, say, the late Douglas Adams. Fforde’s prose is absolutely crammed with nursery rhyme references (and not a few of them are puns), but he always underplays it, which works well not only for the comedic value, but in creating a world and characters that we can believe in and worry about, despite this being a very funny book.

At the same time, Reading is a very contemporary place, the large number of PDRs living there (“Persons of Dubious Reality”) notwithstanding. Well-known but entirely one-dimensional fictional characters are fleshed out, and the result is sometimes hilarious and sometimes almost poignant. The existence of imagined characters in real life is not explained, but the ramifications are (by a certain stretch of the word) realistic. According to his therapist, Humpty Dumpty’s emotional state at the time of death was not stable, and she comments that none of us can really understand just what it’s like to be a very large egg.

Equally sobering, and perhaps just on the verge of being inappropriate is an unexpected comment from DI Spratt himself. His colleague notices him trimming the fat from his food, and he explains that he can’t stand fat, but his first wife loved it. She ate nothing else. His colleague asks if that isn’t terribly unhealthy, and he responds, “Very unhealthy. She died.” And if the relationship between “Amazing Crime Stories” magazine and department budgets seems far-fetched, the resulting precinct politics seem all too familiar.

Since Fforde takes his world and his characters seriously, we do, too. The style is almost parody, almost comic fantasy, but winks to the reader and allusions aside, The Big Over Easy is a proper and satisfying whodunit in its own right. I laughed out loud more than a few times when reading this, but I was also driven along with the story by the mystery itself.

His characters, be they real or not, are also well-developed, but in the case of PDRs, they are rarely what you would expect. During his investigation, Jack chances to brush with an old nemesis, the incarcerated, insane, and brilliant serial killer: the Gingerbreadman. A seven-foot monster, nearly unstoppable physically, and refined in a kind of Hannibal Lecter way, his signature was pulling the limbs off his victims. Don’t laugh. The portrait Fforde draws is unsettling, and you wouldn’t want to be staring down this licorice-smiling baked good in a dark alley, I can guarantee.

Well-realized characters, an intriguing world, and tightly-written, very readable prose. I highly recommend checking this one out.

(Viking, 2005)