Jasper Fforde, The Big Over Easy

What fun, what fun Jasper Fforde novels are! The Big Over Easy was less engaging for me than The Eyre Affair or The Well of Lost Plots, which were part of the series featuring lit.crit detective Tuesday Next, but then this is a new series, so I need to get over the loss of those great characters.

Mind you, DI Jack Spratt appeared briefly in one of the other books, I think The Well of Lost Plots, but I don't recall clearly enough. Not relevant anyway, except that the schtick of the first series carries over into this one as well. Whereas Tuesday Next lived and fought crime in an England where the worlds portrayed in books interpenetrated the so-called real world, where people tried to kill characters in books, where characters could kill people, where people read - read happily, wildly, proudly - Jack Spratt lives in a slightly more complicated England. Fairytale characters live among people, but many of them don't actually know they're fairytale characters; the town of Reading (of course) has been made a sort of sanctuary for them, so they can live fairly normal lives. Time keeps shifting by a few years, too, with no explanation for it, and I'm confident that it's not a continuity error.

Spratt is a detective with the NCD, the Nursery Crime Division, responsible for investigating the special sorts of crimes that happen to nursery tale characters living in the world. Before the book opens he's just failed to convict the murderous three pigs of killing Theophilus Bartholomew Wolff, aka "Big Bad" (p.296), the latest in a long string of unsuccessful prosecutions. This case was hampered by the broad public sympathy for the pigs, and by the fact that the jury consisted of the pigs' peers - namely, twelve talking pigs who'd felt threatened by TB Wolff. As he explains to his new partner, DS Mary Mary, who's just transferred in from Basingstoke (nothing to be ashamed of in that, she's told repeatedly in what's clearly an inside joke for Fforde), nursery crimes have a way of working themselves out in the end, no matter what the investigators do. Spratt, though, feels that he needs to speak for the fairytale characters, and is a good man. This novel begins with the apparent murder of Humpty Stuyvesant Van Dumpty III ("Businessman, philanthropist, large egg," according to the 2002 edition of Who's What?), and gets progressively more complicated and delightful as it goes on.

Rest assured that the plot has plenty of twists but isn't unfair; the writing is sparkling and funny; and the characters are worth your time. I snorted a number of times while reading this book, and I think you'll agree that British humour is best judged by the snort factor.

Heck, I'd read this book just for the chapter epigraphs, most of which are drawn from various newspaper stories about events related to NCD crimes, but all of which paint a clearer picture of the book's represented world, thus removing from the book itself some of the need to explain how the world is the way it is. A sample epigraph:
Aliens Boring, Report Shows
An official report confirms what most of us have already suspected: that the alien visitors who arrived unexpectedly on the planet thirteen years ago are not particularly bright, nor interesting. The thirteen-page government document describes our interstellar chums as being 'dull' and 'unable to plan long-term'. The report, which has been compiled from citizenship application forms and interview transcripts, paints a picture of a race who are 'prone to put high importance on inconsequential minutiae' and are 'easily distracted from important issues'. On an entirely separate note, the aliens were reported to be merging into human society far better than has been expected - the reason for this is unclear.
extract from The Owl, 4 June 2001 (p.143)
Fun, like I said!

Things are made more complicated by the fact that Prometheus becomes Spratt's lodger (yes, that Prometheus). After escaping the chains binding him to a large rock that permit an eagle to rip out his liver nightly, Prometheus is looking for British asylum and resisting through the courts Zeus' claim that his punishment on the Caucusus was justified, indeed legally mandated. Significantly, Spratt's eldest daughter is named Pandora, and she's an evolutionist while Prometheus is a creationist (see here for some mythological background). I hear that Marie Phillips' Gods Behaving Badly is a splendid read, though I haven't picked it up yet; still, here's Jasper Fforde using some of the same tricks, before Phillips' novel appeared.


Coley said…
I was less than thrilled with The Big Over Easy myself, also coming off of the Thursday Next cannon. Still, it was a good book.

My advice?

Run, don't walk, to the nearest bookstore to purchase The Fourth Bear. It was much better than the first, and one of my favorite Ffordes so far. I have a review of it here, if you'd like to read it.

There might be some minor spoilers in there, but I guarantee no plot spoilers.
richard said…
I'll go read your review, Nicole, and I'll be back to Munro's to pick up The Fourth Bear from their sale table. Why are people not buying these like crazy?!?

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