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The Big Over Easy - Jasper Fforde
Member Name: andrewl
The Big Over Easy - Jasper Fforde
Advantages: Eggs-cellent plot, eggs-tremely well-drawn characters
Disadvantages: Eggs-asperating when you finish reading
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.
Summary: A relentless delight of wordplay, literary parody and adequately plausible detection