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I am not completely sure why I picked this book up. The front cover-a cartoon esque image of a detective-suggests to me a story basd in years gone by. An era which fails to interest me. It also states that 'it is very funny.' Another aspect which makes me wary. One mans P G Wodehouse is another mans Tom Holt. If that makes sense.
Jasper Fforde, author of The Eyre Affair and Something Rotten seems to be well known for his amusing novels although I've rarely come across any. Until now that is. Based in Reading, The Big Over Easy is the first book out of the Nursery Crime series.
In an alternative style world where it would be perfectly normal to come across a greek god living in a rented house with a strict land lady, Mr Humpty Dumpty has fallen off of his wall for the last time. The 65 year old egg who has an eye for the ladies and a taste for alcohol had many things going on at the time. So was it just a tragic accident? The Nursery Crime Division don't think so and with them on the case the investigation has many twists and turns.
DI Jack Spratt and his second in command Mary Mary come across many a dodgy character. From Solomon Grundy to Lola Vavoom, each have their own story to tell. With Marys determination and Jacks slightly passive personality they make a good team. Providing comic moments whist still including aspects which makes this book a cleverly written crime novel. One which you aren't aware of until you are some way in.
It's packed full of puns and references to well know nursery rhymes. Miss Hubbard. Solomon Grundy. A goose laying golden eggs and even Rumplestiltskin. Fforde may like to add in these randomised characters but it does make things a bit confusing. A lot of them have no part to play at all in the story and it makes everything a bit hectic. Trying to work out if they are good or bad. Hiding something or not. Lying or telling the truth. In pretty much the majority of the time there is no reason to them being there.
The story pace is very quick and there is always something happening. Once you've assumed that you're fully understanding why they're questioning certain people it turns out that they might of gotten it wrong so you're back at square one.
Whilst I enjoyed the fact that his words did amuse me, something which a lot of supposed 'funny' books fail to do, I think he sacrificed the story for it. It begins to weaken about half way through but somehow manages to keep you interested. More so with the silly and occassionally plain ridiculous events. Thankfully it does pick up towards the end where everything starts to fall back into place.
The book ticks a lot of boxed. The relationship between Jack Spratt and his wife, family and colleagues. Mary Marys reactions to her new job and desires of getting a better position. Murders. Revengeful activities. Acts powered by jealousy and of course comic happenings. Which litter the pages from start to finish. It's funny whilst being slightly serious at the same time.
The initial cost is £6.99 but you can get it on Amazon for £3.58. I won't say it was an easy read as it has taken me longer than usual to get through it. Several times I had to reread pages however it was entertaining so I can see myself picking it up again at some point.
I'd definitely recommend this if you like your crime novels to raise a smile. Fforde is clearly an author who can make you laugh through his words, which a lot of authors seem unable to get across on the page. Another thing which is the most important of all and shows how good this book is, is the fact that my sister actually bothered to sit down and read it all the way through. Putting it nicely, she's more of a gossip magazine sort of person and the sight of seeing her reading something which doesn't have glossy photographs must mean that it is a good read.
I started by reading the Thursday Next series but I think I prefer Jack Spratt! this book has lots more charming details in it. The plot is well know to all Humpty Dumpty is off his wall ... did he fall or was he murdered.
Heading the investigation is Jack Spratt head of the NCD (Nursery Crimes Division) and his assistant Mary Mary. Reading is full of nursery rhyme characters who think they are really, the gingerbread man is a dangerous psychopath in jail for murder, the 3 little pigs have been tried for murdering the wolf, Punch is constantly being arrested for throwing the baby down the stairs. With all of this going on you can understand why they need thier own police department! Jack himself eats no fat and his wife died from eating no lean, he is also jack from Jack and the Beanstalk but doesn't know it.
The crime is solved after lots of twists and turns, I think I'm quite good at solving mysteries but I would never have got this! in Reading a lot of how crimes are solved is determined by how they could potentially be written up for publication in 'amazing crimes' Jack competitor at work is Friedland Chymes who tries to undermine the investigation at every turn.
One of the things i loved about this book were the new papers articles that pop up every so often, giving random insight into how life in Jack Spratts world is!
Reading (the place, not the activity, although I half suspect that was why it was chosen here), 2004: Humperdinck von Dumpty the third... recently found in pieces at the bottom of a wall. It's a case for the NCD - Nursery Crimes Division: So did he fall, or was he pushed?
Welcome to a mad world where reality is more or less as we'd recognise it - except that nursery rhyme characters form a (persecuted, they'd claim!) minority of society. Here there is a need for legislation to protect anthropomorphic animals with human-like intelligence, such as the (in)famous Three Little Pigs - protect them from being eaten, that is! Forget kosher - check that your morning bacon sarnie used to 'oink' rather than speak!
So back to Humpty... A giant, shattered shell found at the bottom of a wall. Can Jack Spratt, head of NCD, solve the case? More importantly, can he get a good, dramatic story out of it - for here, the solving of the crime is secondary to the publication rights... If Jack can't solve this one and make at least a magazine sub-feature, it might just be the end of NCD, especially after the debacle of the Three Pigs case (charge: murder of one B.B. Wolf; verdict: not guilty). Trouble is, he might be the only straight copper left on the Reading force - albeit one with an undeserved reputation as a 'Giant killer', as after all, three of the four unfortunates 'were just tall'.
It took me a while to get into this book. For a start, it's in a pretty much identical style to Fffffforde's previous Thursday Next series, and so felt entirely unoriginal - copying his own template, so to speak. I didn't feel impressed. And then there's the 'hook': nursery rhymes. Such as Jack's need to cut the fat off his bacon butties, or Little Bo Peep regularly reporting missing sheep (to the NCD, naturally). The first few times I read about Inspectors Moose and Rhombus, it was funny. It gets old quickly, however. And then there were Fffforde's trademark pun names: I knew 'Friedland Chymes' meant *something*, but for the life of me I couldn't think what kind of food 'landchymes' might be, either side of frying. Sigh.
Then a funny thing (!) started to happen... as the NCD's investigation picks up pace, and the details of Humpty's death start to be revealed, I found it hard to stop at the end of a chapter. I mean, the one I've just finished throws up another question, perhaps there'll be an answer in the next one. They're fairly short chapters, too, so another one wouldn't hurt... Yup, that's me, pretty addicted! :)
As seen in the Thursday Next series, each chapter is preceded by a short 'extract' from some fictitious book-world publication, or newspaper cutting. I'm in two minds about this. On one hand, they can feel like annoying little breaks in the story - as I said, it was so easy to say 'just one more chapter!' and more often than not it was the little pre-chapter blurb that stopped me (hmm... might not be a bad thing!). On the other hand, with this being a 'new world' (it seems related to Thursday Next's Swindon - and indeed, 'The Eyre Affair' has been made into a movie here - but I'm not sure if it's perhaps a dimensional cousin?), there is some genuinely useful info. For instance, with all the talk of letting the Three Little Pigs 'fry' for the death of a certain wolf, I did wonder about bacon sarnies in this world. A couple of chapters on, we're treated to an extract from the Anthropomorphic Character Protection Law of 1962 (if it can't talk, you can eat it!).
Alongside the investigation into Humpty Dumpty's death, we're also finding out about the rivalry between Jack Spratt and top cop/media darling Friedland Chymes; new recruit DS Mary Mary's introduction to the not exactly well-respected NCD; and just generally about this world where Old Mother Hubbard really does keep checking those cupboards, 5ft eggs are resp... urm, members of society, and Jack's new lodger has spent the last several hundred years chained to a rock having his liver pecked out daily (that'd be the immortal Titan Prometheus, btw!).
The Big Over Easy (TBOE) may be a comedy/detective tale, but it has a sharp bite of satire which stops it feeling at all childish. The press come in for a lambasting, and there's surely a large dig from a setup where the police are more interested in the subsequent TV drama value of their cases than the actual solving of crimes. Racism and integration issue crop up via both the nursery characters, but also the totally random alien on the force - an element that seemed to swerve 'off topic', but provided enough funny moments (alien making tea: "There was no milk, so I used white emulsion paint instead") that I was glad of his (disappointingly brief) inclusion.
Along with aliens, the author also swerves from his main theme with the odd fairy tale and Ancient Greek hero, which while feeling a little bit like mixing metaphors, does take away from the 'sameness' of the background. The nursery rhyme theme still seems far too contrived for me to really like, but then a small mystery starts to develop around that, too...
A review quote on the back of the book claims that TBOE 'works as a detective story' - well, yes and no. No because when things are based around nursery rhymes, chances are you know what's coming... beanstalks, anyone? However, 'yes', because the bulk of the mystery comes from twists and turns in direction - Fffforde keeps suspense by only slowly revealing the information we need to ask questions - even if the answers may then be guessable. Even then, the 'whodunit' aspect remains intriguing longer than the whys and wherefores. And even when we reach a slightly predictable end, there's another veer off in a direction I just didn't see coming.
TBOE already has a published sequel, The Fourth Bear, and the back of that book tells me that Jack and Mary will return again in 'The Last Great Tortoise Race'. I'll be curious to see how much more mileage Fffffforde can get out of the characters, or indeed how many more nursery rhymes he can find for source material. On the other hand, TBOE was an enjoyable read, and perhaps that bit more accessible than The Eyre Affair, not relying on knowledge of classic literature for the in-jokes.
Recommended, both for fans of Thursday Next, and those who have yet to try Ffffforde's writing style, but are up for a bit of wackiness.
Paperback 398 pages (Hodder 2006)
First released in 2005
RRP: £6.99 but currently available for £3.99 from Amazon - go go go!! And tell them the Gingerbread Man sent you ;)
My experiences with the utterly dreadful work of Robert Rankin had put me off 'humour' novels with clever punning titles. And so, despite clearly being highly-praised, witty, post-modern works, I steered well clear of the likes of Jasper Fforde and whoever it was that wrote 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth' for months.
But a bookshop clearance is a bookshop clearance so a few weeks ago I bought The Big Over Easy for a couple of quid and read it more in hope than expectation.
Jack Spratt heads up the NCD for Reading Police. NCD standing for Nursery Crimes Department. A mild-mannered likeable man with a blissful family life and no drink problems or classic cars, he has trouble fitting in with other detectives in a working environment where success is measured by the readers of Amazing Crime Magazine.
But when shady businessegg and philanthropist Humpty Stuyvesant Van Dumpty III is found shattered next to a wall in a seedy part of Reading, Jack finds himself with a huge case on his hands.
The brilliance of The Big Over Easy is that on the one hand, it's a work of constant parody. It parodies detective fiction, it parodies nursery rhymes and fairytales, it even parodies Greek myth, as Spratt takes Prometheus in as a lodger and watches him fall in love with his daughter, Pandora.
The thing about parodies, though, is that they only work if you know the thing that's being sent up. Forde opens his novel with Spratt in a press conference after the Three Little Pigs get off the murder charge against the Big Bad Wolf. He constantly riffs on stories and poems and rhymes that we all at least half remember from childhood, and so the book is completely accessible to just about everybody.
But updated fairytales are a common and overused device, so Fforde's more bizarre characters aren't updated. They've mostly been taken straight from their source texts, and it's the interactions between these fantasy figures and the more 'real' 21st Century characters that provide a lot of the humour on display.
In many ways, the novel reminded me of Shaun of the Dead, in that it works both as a piece of detective fiction AND as a comedy novel. The NCD may be a bunch of misfits in the tradition of Terry Pratchett's Night Watch, but they work within a real police environment, with inter-departmental politics and budget worries, and press relations worries, and all sorts of things of that nature.
How well DI Jack Spratt measures up as a realistic detective is hard to say, as one of Fforde's neatest tricks is to send up the rest of crime fiction in the introduction to each chapter. At the start of each of the book's chapters, there's a short excerpt from a newspaper or magazine - news of a law banning people from finding bodies while walking their dog, for example, or a report on the Guild of Detectives complaining about DNA databases as they take the drama out of their stories. Spratt's nemesis, Chymes, is also given to convicting killers on the flimsiest evidence, up to and including how far you can exhale crumbs while talking with your mouth full.
With this kind of savage satire going on, the reader almost fails to notice, and certainly fails to care, that Spratt and his sargeant Mary Mary have more than their fair share of lucky breaks and sudden flashes of insight.
The book was a completely satisfying experience to read. There was the odd section that seemed a bit too long or silly, especially at the start with something called the Sacred Bonga and a politician called Jellyman who I just didn't care about. But once you get to the end, you realise that absolutely everything fits in somewhere along the way. From Jack's wife's apparently pointless job as a photographer to the silly reclusive movie star, every line has significance. In that respect, it reminded me most of the late Douglas Adams. In The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, even an empty fridge became a massively important part of the plot, and if you like Douglas Adams, I'm sure you'll like Jasper Fforde.
Jack Spratt is a great character, a man constantly under-estimated both by criminals and by his colleagues, his very ordinariness makes him the perfect foil for the mad world of footcare products, Hannibal Lecteresque gingerbread men and philandering eggs. His one character quirk is apparently a penchant for murdering giants, and as a huge beanstalk starts growing in his mother's garden, this reputation as a giant killer creates a huge amount of expectation throughout the novel.
If I had a single criticism to make of the book, it would simply be the names of some of Spratt's peers. There's a Miss Maple, and an Inspector Moose, and of course we know who they're SUPPOSED to be, but if Fforde didn't feel he could get away with slagging off Morse and Miss Marple directly, why not just keep their names out completely? After all, most readers will recognise the character from a simple reference to a Jaguar-driving detective from Oxford without needing to resort to such silly and distracting tactics.
But that's the most minor quibble in the world. The Big Over Easy is a relentless delight of wordplay, literary parody and adequately plausible detection.
The word of mouth on Jasper Fforde has long been enthusiastic, among those in the know. But now that his readership has expanded immeasurably, the expectations for such books as The Big Over Easy are considerable. And whether or not those expectations will be met by this new book depends on the readiness of readers to strike out in new directions--just as the author has done. Ffordes speciality has long been the outrageous teasing of narrative forms, and there's a measure of that here, although more disciplined than in earlier books.