Books: Then and Now    Category: Then 

Review: The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde

 

“I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery, and I have not found any books so sensible since.”       G.K. Chesterton

Anyone who was denied nursery rhymes and fairy tales as a child (apparently there are such parents) probably won’t experience the full force effect of The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde, but that shouldn’t discourage them from giving it a read. As a bona fide mystery story, it’s a meticulously plotted page-turner. That, in itself, is a good enough reason to take it off the shelf and put it on the night table by the bed.

But the true charm of the book, as with all the Jasper Fforde books that I’ve read, is in its metafictional tidbits, the delightful little flavour buds of subtextual nonsense that can take a reader of any age back to the best times of childhood.

Jasper Fforde won the UK’s Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction in 2004.

Jasper Fforde won the UK’s Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction in 2004. His novels are constructed like a two-tiered cake, one vanilla and one chocolate-marzipan-rum, the practical sitting atop the improbable. A reader can be satisfied just by snacking on the one layer. But to really get the full roundedness of it, to appreciate it as a whole, you have to surrender your practical side to storybook hedonism and scoff down a slice of each. The Big Over Easy is a meal-sized example of how his brain works.

The book is a solidly-structured police procedural mystery. However it is built upon a whimsical foundation reinforced with bars of the absurd. The premise of the plot? Humpty Dumpty didn’t fall off the wall.  He was pushed, or perhaps knocked off in some other mysterious way. But it was murder, nevertheless. The case falls to (what else?) the Nursery Crime Division and detective Jack Spratt gets the file. The story rollicks on from there for forty-four chapters. Well forty-three actually, because an authorial hallmark of Fforde’s books is that they do not have a chapter thirteen.

Each chapter is a silly and suspenseful little vignette on its own, ending in a cliffhanger.

The book has a table of contents, with each chapter titled in old-novel style. The chapter titles pull you in with decorative wordplay; with names like Mrs. Laura Dumpty (the victim’s wife), Mary Mary (Jack Spratt’s partner) and Mrs. Hubbard, Dogs and Bones (Humpty Dumpty’s landlady), and each is a silly and suspenseful little vignette on its own, ending in a cliffhanger.

The book is set in the real-life city of Reading in Berkshire, England and, reading (pardon, please) between the lines, one almost has the feeling that the author had a mole in the police department there. The cleverly-worded disclaimer at the front that might (or might not) mix fact with fiction does little to dispel that idea, starting out with the straightforward:

“The Nursery Crime Division, the Reading Police Department and the Oxford and Berkshire Constabulary in this book are entirely fictitious, and any similarities to authentic police procedures, protocol or forensic techniques are entirely coincidental.”

Then it spins off into dubious territory with:

All Nursery Crime books have been designated as Character Exchange Program Safe Havens, and all characters are protected by the Council of Genres Directive GBSD/211950.

The spoofing never stops.

And the spoofing never stops. The Big Over Easy even has the police bureaucracy covered. The penguin edition that I have has an image on the back of an authentic-looking, official forensics pre-computer pathology form for typing a crime scene report, complete with a blank area for drawing a diagram. It has been painstakingly filled out with a detailed sketch of the deceased big egg, his many broken pieces all patched back together again by the forensic pathologist (the overworked and redoubtable Mrs. Singh).

The report has hand-written notations as to the victim’s scars, bruises and tattoos. There is also a plotted trajectory and entry and exit wounds of the bullet (sorry, spoiler) that went through his shell and sent him tumbling off the wall. Mrs Singh, no slouch when it comes to her science, has also discovered a small hole in the patched-up shell, made by an electric drill, where it is suspected the victim injected himself with drugs. Two crowning touches that complete the parody are an imprint (in red ink) of an official department stamp and a tiny alpha-numeric code in the bottom left-hand corner, the official department stock-number for reordering more blank forms. Delightful!

Jasper Fforde is also superb at painting a vivid picture with words. When Jack Spratt’s partner, Sergeant Mary Mary first arrives at the Nursery Crime Division offices, you get an instant first impression of not only what she thinks of the place but also of its relative position in the pecking order of things, in less than twenty lines of dialogue.

“How long has the NCD been in these offices, sir?”

“Since they started the division, why?”

“No reason. It just seems a bit…well, close.”

“I like it,” replied Jack mildly, taking a telephone from one of the filing cabinet drawers. “We have a room next door as well, but Gretel and the filing take up most of that. It’s generally ok as long as we don’t all want to walk around at the same time.”

“Gretel?”

“She’s a specialist in forensic accountancy, but she helps us out when we’re short staffed, so we consider her one of ours. You’ll like her. She’s good with numbers and speaks binary.”

“Is that important?”

“Actually it is. Constable Ashley generally understands everything we say, but complex issues are best explained to him in his mother tongue.”

“Ashley’s a Rambosian?”

“Yes, first ever in uniform.”

There was a pause.

“Do you have any problems with aliens, Mary?”

“Never met one,” she replied simply. “I take people as I find them. What’s that smell?”

“Boiled cabbage. The canteen kitchens are next door. Don’t worry; by the third year, you’ll barely smell it.”

“Hmm,” murmured Mary, looking disdainfully around the small room and the piles of untidy case notes. “I might have an issue with the window.”

“What window?”

“That’s the issue.”

The Big Over Easy was first published in 2005. For me, it just got better with age. As a review in the UK’s Sunday Telegraph put it at the time: “Forget all the rules of space, time and reality; just sit back and enjoy the adventure.”  If you’re willing to engage your brain for a high-speed ride, buckle your seat belt and hang on tight.  It’s a reading rush.   REG

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Jasper Fforde