In one of his Thursday Next series of books, Jasper Fforde had a plot where all the oral story characters – from nursery rhymes and myths and so on – were campaigning for equal rights as characters within classical literature. The eventual solution? Create a book in which they could all live and interact together, that could basically serve as their home. The title of that book? The Big Over Easy. The punchline of this joke? That The Big Over Easy is also a real book, one that Fforde had already written prior to the first Thursday Next story seeing the light of day.
Not in the form we have it, of course. It was revised and changed in significant ways when he apparently dusted it off to publish it in the wake of his success with Thursday Next books. But the core concept – a procedural detective story taking place in a world where nursery rhyme characters live and breathe…and die…alongside “normal” people has stayed the same.
Like in many of Fforde’s books, the “rules” of this world are not strictly spelled out up front. But the basic gist is that these characters don’t seem to know that there is anything unusual about them. They just live out their lives alongside the rest of us, with only their tendency to inevitably fall into familiar behavioral and narrative patterns serving as a clue as to their unique identity – well, aside from the fact that they are the likes of anthropomorphized pigs or giant talking eggs. But even this doesn’t stand out as strange to them. And why not? This is a world which also features friendly but confused visiting aliens and extreme cucumber growing (as appears in the book’s sequel) – so a businessman named Solomon Grundy who operates according to a particularly strict weekly schedule does not stand out as much as he might otherwise.
The star of this particular tale is the head of the Reading Police Nursery Crimes division, one Detective Inspector Jack Sprat, who as far as he knows is a perfectly ordinary police officer, even though he has quiet tendency to slay giants, climb beanstalks, and keep triads of bags of wool tucked away in his shed. He works alongside one Detective Sergeant Mary (Mary Mary, that is), who finds that in spite of her initial misgivings, she uncannily fits in at the Nursery Crimes division.
The mystery, as implied by the title, is over the death of an egg: Humpty Dumpty in particular. Did he just fall off that wall, or was he pushed? The answer is even stranger, which is a big part of what makes the book worthwhile: in spite of all the weirdness going on, it plays the mystery completely straight. The solution, which unfolds gradually throughout the story before finally clearing up all the questions with one more plot twist than you were expecting, hits the mark that you want from stories like this: you’d never figure it out on your own, but you feel like if you’d just thought about it a bit longer, you just might have…
In addition to all the zaniness going on with nursery rhyme characters, the book also plays with all the tropes of detective fiction in really fun way. The story takes place in a world where circulation figures driven by the written exploits of police detectives are just as important as arrest rates. And unfortunately, Jack Sprat is a happily married father of five without any of the peculiarities or personal vices normally connected to literary detectives. Will he have to assume a love of the opera, a tendency toward drink, or some other behavioral tick to help him boost his numbers, not to mention join the lauded Guild of Detectives, where he’d get to rub shoulders with the likes of Lord Peter Flimsy or Inspector Moose? Read on to find out!
All in all, I enjoyed the book quite a lot. I like the sense of humor and am always in a mood to enjoy a well constructed mystery. My general reaction is more positive than to the sequel, The Fourth Bear, which I read earlier, but that may be just because I was looking for a slightly more gradual introduction to yet another wacky Jasper Fforde world. I’d like to revisit The Fourth Bear sometime, as well as the rest of Fforde’s literary oeuvre. I always enjoy exploring his landscapes, and if you’re up for some truly offbeat spurts of humor combined with genuinely compelling stories, than maybe you will too.