Published by Viking
Review by W. R. Greer
What do you do if you're the head of the NCD, the Nursery Crime Division, and Humpty Dumpty has taken a great fall? If you're Detective Inspector Jack Spratt, you take your new officer, Mary Mary, and head to the scene and ascertain if Humpty committed suicide or if he was murdered. If you've never read a novel by Jasper Fforde before, then you're probably re-reading those first two sentences and wondering what I'm talking about. If you're a fan of Jasper Fforde's fiction, he's started a new series in his inimitable style that can be read at a pun-filled pace.
The Big Over Easy is the first book in the Nursery Crime series. Jack Spratt is the detective in charge of the Nursery Crime Division in Reading, England. Besides being populated with ordinary humans, the Reading area also has characters from nursery rhymes, aliens from outer space (who speak fluent binary), and anthropomorphized animals. The novel starts with Mary Mary being assigned to the NCD, much to her chagrin, instead of working with the famous and charismatic Detective Inspector Friedland Chymes. Chymes has solved the most complex and famous crimes, and published the story of how he solved these crimes in the magazine Amazing Crime Stories. Fame, fortune, and power comes to those detectives who not only solve the crimes, but get them accepted into the most popular true crime magazines and perhaps made into a television movie. Friedland Chymes continues to solve crimes based on the most arcane clues and esoteric procedures, whipping the press into a frenzy with each press conference to announce his most extraordinary detective skills and the solving of the latest crime.
Crimes that involved nursery rhyme characters were beneath the regular detectives like Chymes, and assigned to the understaffed and much maligned NCD. Friedland Chymes once worked with Jack Spratt in the NCD, but after taking credit for Spratt's work in solving a few high profile cases, he moved on to fame and fortune. Jack Spratt, reeling from the murder acquittal of the three pigs (the jury decided that boiling pot of water in the fireplace didn't constitute premeditation), is informed that the NCD might be disbanded and he'd be forced into early retirement. Jack, who would eat no fat and whose first wife died from eating only fat, is married again with a blended family of his, hers, and their children. He's boring, ignored, and lacks the flash and public skills to have a promising career. Being assigned to work with him could spell the end of Mary Mary's career. She's just transferred from Basingstoke, where life and crime was a lot duller than it was in Reading.
It wasn't that Reading had any more murders than Basingstoke -- it just had better ones. Reading and the Thames Valley area was more of a "fairy cakes laced with strychnine" or "strangulation with a silk handkerchief" sort of place, where there were always bags of interesting suspects, convoluted motives and seemingly insignificant clues hidden in an inquiry of incalculable complexity yet solved within a week or two. By contrast, murders in Basingstoke were strictly blunt instruments, drunkenly wielded, solved within the hour -- or not at all. Mary had worked on six murder investigations and, to her great disappointment, hadn't once discovered one of the wonderful clues that seem to have little significance but later, in an epiphanic moment, turn the case on its head and throw the guilty light on someone previously eliminated from the inquiries.Their first case together, which they're told to wrap up quickly, is to investigate the death of Humpty Dumpty, found shattered to pieces at the base of the wall where he'd been sitting. Humpty was a shady character, involved in questionable financial transactions, divorced from his second wife because of his infidelities, and had a string of people who could want him dead. He also had a drinking problem and was heavily investing his money in a company about to go bankrupt. It looked like a classic case of suicide, although tantalizing clues were left behind. Whose 28-foot red strand of hair was found in his apartment? Did his neighbor Willie Winkie really sleep through it all in a narcoleptic fit or did he see something he's not willing to share with the detectives? Did Prometheus (yes, that Prometheus, whom Zeus is still seeking extradition back to Mount Olympus) see anyone unusual going in or out of Humpty's apartment? In classic English murder mystery fashion, the case gets increasingly complex with a cast of potential suspects that grows exponentially. Then there's those magic beans Jack gets in return for a painting of a cow . . .
As you might have guessed by now, The Big Over Easy is full of whimsy and puns, and is a classic English murder mystery that satirizes classic English murder mysteries (the detectives are flabbergasted when one case turns out that the butler really did do it). At the same time, the mystery behind Humpty's murder follows this classic style and is entertaining and satisfying in both its complexity and incredibly strange climax. Jack Spratt soldiers along, keenly aware that this case could be his last, if he gets to finish it. Friedland Chymes is working hard to undermine Jack and take the case away from him, for reasons Jack can't quite fathom. Underestimating the underestimated detective like Jack, another mystery staple, can lead to one's undoing.
Jasper Fforde has mastered the dry humor of puns and sly references, with character names patterned on old fairy tales, English culture, and literary detectives. One sentence can make you chuckle, the next can make you groan, and the one after that looks like it probably has a joke hidden in it, but you're not sure where. Just never mind and keep reading, because there are hundreds more to go. The mystery plot keeps the novel zipping along so that it doesn't disintegrate into constant gags with no structure to support them. Jack and Mary continue forward unlocking secret after secret while dodging all the career-enders tossed into their path. Nothing is what it seems in Reading, but they're determined to get to the bottom of Humpty's murder, oblivious to the puns that will accompany them along the way.
The Big Over Easy is silly, entertaining, and unlike any murder mystery you've read before. Whether you enjoy reading humor or mystery, Jasper Fforde can satisfy both tastes with this novel. If you enjoy them both, especially if they're done over the top, then The Big Over Easy is right up your alley. Just go along for the ride with Jack Spratt and Mary Mary and be prepared for non-stop plot twists and a fairy tale ending. Oh, did I mention the beanstalk?
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