The Big Over Easy: A Nursery Crime
By Jasper Fforde
Published by Penguin Audio
Read by Simon Prebble
Some ideas really tickle me. I love whimsy mixed with fantasy and so I had a lot of hopes for this story. The whole idea of a detective investigating the death of Humpty Dumpty in a world where all the characters of nursery rhymes and stories were real sounded like the sort of thing I love to read. Unfortunately this did not quite hit the mark.
First of all, let’s keep in mind that despite the setting, this is a serious mystery story and I think it deserves to be shelved in the Mystery section of any store or library, but with a story set in a world where the nursery rhyme characters are real, I expected a lot more humor mixed into the story and it just was not there. Or maybe it was the presentation.
There was some situational humor mixed into the story. For instance, Jack Spratt is a happily married detective inspector who, in the past has been known to kill giants (okay only one was really a giant. The rest were just tall) and whose first wife died of malnutrition, probably because she would only eat fat. Jack, of course will not touch fat to save his life. Later in the story his mother sends him off to sell a painting of a cow and he comes back with a handful of magic beans. Does any of this sound familiar?
His sidekick, Sergeant Detective Mary Mary, has been accused in her youth of being quite contrary… oh well I could go on, but… In any case many familiar nursery rhyme characters are in the story, both as supporting characters and as cameos. It should have been amusing and the situations were funny, but the humorous aspects are presented so dryly that the lack of humidity appears to have dried up anything that might have been funny.
Jack has just failed to convict the Three Little Pigs for the first degree murder murder of the Wolf, aka Big Bad and now, after years of such cases, his department, “Nursery Crimes” is in danger of being shut down. When Humpty Dumpty is found dead, however, smashed to pieces, having fallen off a wall, Jack and his new assistant Mary along with their backup team (some are also nursery characters except for the alien) must investigate and find out for certain who killed Humpty Dumpty.
The concept really grabbed me. It’s a great idea, really it is. However, just as I said when reviewing the “Thursday Next” novels, Mister Fforde really does not have a good handle on how to build up a good fantasy world. (at least not in any of his stories I have experienced so far.) This Nursery Crimes world is inconsistent and unbelievable. I could accept a world with nursery rhyme characters in it, but this seems to be a quite mundane Great Britain just as it is today, more or less. And yet no one seems to find it at all noteworthy that Humpty Dumpty is a rather large anthropomorphic egg. Now if there had been others of his sort running around, maybe this might make sense, but he was apparently unique and yet no one ever wonders why he can even exist. The same pretty much goes for sentient and sometimes anthropomorphic animals (like the pigs, the wolf and the three bears and so forth). Mary does once ask “Don’t they realize they are nursery rhymes?” Apparently they do not, but then neither does she realize the same about herself. Ironic? Yes. Funny? Could have been, but not the way it was presented.
Then, to make another inexplicable difference with anything sensible, in this world of his, it seems to be more important to be able to sell the stories of your investigations to the various “True Crime” magazines than it is to actually solve a case. All crime solving, except for Jack’s, is done with getting published in mind. That leads me to wonder why anyone might bother with trying to catch mere pickpockets, shoplifters or even burglars. It just does not make sense to me that the culture of a world could be so centered on crime stories that police departments would be so geared to make headlines rather than solve crimes or arrest wrong-doers. Why even issue a speeding ticket if it is not to some celebrity so there will be publishable headlines? The whole world just falls apart in its impossibility for me.
And then there are the aliens. What the heck are they doing there? They serve no useful purpose to the story whatsoever save to be the source of a unique religious artifact, that could have been anything rare and priceless. Having it of alien origin made no different whatsoever. Jack’s alien staff member also need not have been an alien – and probably could have easily been his sister Jill, still feeling guilty about the who up and down the hill incident of their youth (I just made that up, btw). So the aliens of this story are like the vampires and werewolves of Thursday Next’s world. They are thre for no explainable reason.
However, in spite of an amateurish setting, Fforde proves once again he knows how to write a good mystery. It is a good story, if a bit dry, with multiple twist endings and I think I could really have enjoyed the story had it not been for the badly flawed setting. He had some good ideas, but did not seem to know what to do with them.
I read somewhere that this story was actually written before the Thursday Next stories. I believe it. Thursday Next’s reality was hopelessly cluttered too, but while there was too much in it, it hung together better than this one did. We do meet some of the characters from this series during Thursday’s stay in the Book world and these characters are stuck in a book that cannot be published. Was this the author’s self-deprecation or an honest evaluation of his work? I’m not sure.
If you are primarily concerned with a good mystery, I think you might like this story. But if you’re looking for a light story that parodies that genre, I think you should look elsewhere.
It is hard to tell if this book might have been improved by another reader. Simon Prebble actually does a pretty good job of reading aloud and so far as I can tell does his best to convey the emotions and voices as Mister Fforde intended them, but this may one of those rare cases in which perhaps it might have been better to inject a bit more personality into the reading. As I said above, the humor, such as it comes across, is so dry as to have evaporated away. Perhaps a more energenic reading might have helped.
However, Mister Prebble’s reading is a good one. I just think this was one of those times for which a breaking of the rules would have been the right thing to do.
So we have an adequate reading of a good story in a poorly envisioned world. That’s an interesting mix and you might like it. Sadly I was too put off. However, I will, in the near future, listen to Fforde’s next book in this series, The Fourth Bear and maybe, just maybe, more of this world might make sense.