Hodder & Stoughton, 2005, 398 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-340-83568-0
If you have read any of Jasper Fforde’s previous books, you know what to expect from The Big Over Easy: zany fiction espousing genre-bending meta-fictional tricks, utterly readable prose, good gags and sharp characters embracing their clichéd (or counter-clichéd) nature. After four book in the Thursday Next series, The Big Over Easy is the beginning of a new series, very loosely connected to the previous one. (By this, I mean that the connections are one-way: readers of The Well of Lost Plots will have a blast reading The Big Over Easy, but there are no explicit references in the other direction) In this volume, detective Jack Spratt and his newly-transfered assistant Mary Mary investigate the unfortunate death of Humpty Dumpty, found cracked near a wall.
Yup; After lampooning the entire genre fiction establishment in his previous four books, Fforde returns with a crossover between crime fiction and nursery rhymes. Jack Spratt’s world is just as likely to include three murderous pigs and women with really long hair than bad cars, office politics and forensic evidence. The Nursery Crime Division of the Reading Police Department isn’t glamorous (in fact, it’s pretty much the local laughingstock), but Spratt is too conscientious a cop to let that drag him down. Still, he too would like to be part of the Guild of Detectives, and submit his thrilling adventures for inclusion in Amazing Crime Stories magazine…
Oh yes, the patented weirdness of Fforde’s funny fantasy is back. While The Big Over Easy is generally more grounded and a touch more controlled that Fforde’s previous books, no one will mistake this for conventional fiction. Not when sight gags include nursery rhyme characters trying to fit in the real world, or a spiritual leader called “The Jellyman”. Fforde has a gift for heightening the fantastic with a good dose of the mundane, and so Jack Spratt’s affection for his troublesome car tend to be cute rather than annoying. (Well, cute to us and annoying to him)
The Big Over Easy, as the title suggest, is perhaps more effective when it’s riffing on the conventions of the crime fiction genre. There is a lot of wonderful material about the convoluted nature of mystery plots in here, as well as how master detectives would be seen (or adulated) by their peers. Fforde’s plot itself cheerfully goes down a tremendously complicated route, so don’t be afraid to let go and not be too frustrated at the solutions pile up.
Fforde’s sense of sly humour and limpid prose also remains intact. Reviewing one of his books tends to be an exercise in picking favourite gags, which I’m trying to avoid. What is certain is that next to The Eyre Affair, this is his most accessible book. Readers who haven’t tried any of his fiction yet will find much to love if they start here. (I doubt, however, that readers frustrated with Fforde’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to plotting will be any more pleased here, though The Big Over Easy is a bit more restrained in real-world matters.) A fair warning: Don’t be too surprised if, once firmly in the novel, you don’t want to stop reading.
One thing that did trip me up, in the interest of full disclosure, is that my knowledge of nursery rhymes is sub-par: Having been raised in a francophone environment until way past the weaning age for comptines (and not being a parent myself), I don’t have the instinctual knowledge of nursery rhymes ingrained in native English speakers. Those for whom English is a second language, or who may have forgotten even the most basic nursery rhymes may want to sneak into a young nephew’s room and read up on his documentation before diving into The Big Over Easy.
Otherwise, this book is all gold. Good solid concept, smooth execution and the usual Fforde laughs. Who could ask for more? Oh, wait, me! I can’t wait until Spratt’s next adventure, already announced as The Fourth Bear…