The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde
The Big Over Easy is the debut novel of the ‘Nursery Crime’ series, a spin-off of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books. Thursday’s introduction of nursery rhyme characters into the fictional Reading set potboiler ‘Caversham Heights’ during the events of Well of Lost Plots resulted in the creation of The Big Over Easy. It’s a bit hard to wrap your head around, but you don’t really need to worry about it; in fact, there’s no real need to have read Thursday Next’s adventures to enjoy The Big Over Easy.
The Big Over Easy is set in a world in which real life detectives are pressured into appearing as eccentric and entertaining as possible, as with the fictional detectives of our world, so that their exploits can be chronicled in ‘Amazing Crime Stories.’ The test of a great detective isn’t really results or competence, but entertainment value, with alcoholism and broken marriages standing as definite pluses for professional development. It’s a really fun idea, and one that Fforde runs with well. Of course, the other major difference is that nursery rhyme characters exist in the real world, and Fforde does as good a job of making his weird setting seem strangely plausible, just as he does in the Thursday Next books. This setting is, by Jasper Fforde standards, more grounded in reality than his other works, but it’s a potent setting which begs for further novels.
Constable Mary Mary has been transferred from Basingstoke to Reading, and hopes to work with the legendary detective Friedland Chymes, but is instead sent to the NCD, the Nursery Crime Division. The NCD is headed by happily married, non-alcoholic Jack Spratt, and is reeling from the failure to prosecute the three little pigs for the murder of the wolf. Almost as soon as Mary arrives, Humpty Dumpty falls of his wall, and Jack suspects foul play.
Probably the most impressive thing about The Big Over Easy is how well it functions as a straight detective story, although being a tribute to the genre it’s difficult for it to not sometimes fall into the clichés which it is parodying. Still, I found myself getting genuinely intrigued by the case, forgetting that the victim was a giant egg. Fforde writes with a mixture of Douglas Adams-esque exuberance and Terry Pratchett’s sometimes po-faced presentation of the ridiculous, and it comes together into something oddly convincing. The plot probably could have been a bit tighter, with The Big Over Easy following a similarly loose structure to his Thursday Next books, and it actually felt more noticeable and irritating in The Big Over Easy than in his other works. Fforde writes like an eager puppy, leaping everywhere and filled with infectious energy, which is sometimes a strength but often a weakness, leading to a lack of discipline. Still, it’s hard not to get caught up in the sheer fun of Fforde’s writing; he clearly just loves his craft. You can always tell the authors who love the experience of writing, such as Neil Gaiman, Stephen King and Iain Banks, and Fforde is certainly one of them.
Jack is similar to Thursday; he’s an understated everyman who, while not overburdened with personality himself, is a likeable mirror to the insanity around him. Constable Mary Mary never came alive as a genuinely interesting character in her own right, with the main cast being slightly underwhelming. The supporting cast make up for it though, with my favourites being Spratt’s well depicted family, as well as their lodger Prometheus (who readers of Well of Lost Plots will remember chose to live inside ‘Caversham Heights’) and some of the other officers in the NCD.
The Big Over Easy is fun, but it was still probably my least favourite Jasper Fforde so far. Maybe I just haven’t read enough detective novels to get the references, but I felt that this was by far the messiest novel of Fforde’s that I’ve read. Still, it’s a lot of fun, and worth a look if you like Thursday Next, detectives or nursery rhymes.