Jasper Fforde is my hero. I have devoured almost the entire Thursday Next series, and then I found out that unbeknownst to me he had an entire other series—of mysteries! The Big Over Easy is the first featuring detective Jack Spratt and his sergeant, Mary Mary, and is a wonderful send-up of the hard-boiled branch of detective fiction, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, true-crime publications, the criminal justice system, and sacred relics. With a little mythology thrown in for good measure.
Detective Jack Spratt is the head of Reading, England’s Nursery Crime division, which suffers from a perpetual lack of funds, manpower, and respect from the other branches of the police. Sergeant Mary Mary has just transferred in—she got stuck with the NCD instead of with her idol, Friedland Chymes. Chymes, a kind of Sherlock Holmes, has an ego the size of Minnessota and a personal vendetta against Spratt. Spratt is given one last chance to save the NCD when he begins investigating the death-by-falling of Humpty Dumpty. Was the big egg man pushed from his favorite wall? Was he shot? Was he poisoned? Was he fertile? Was he drunk? And just what do genetic splicing, black-market spinning wheels, and a visit from the Jellyman have to do with anything?
The Big Over Easy almost defies description. Half the fun is just trying to figure out the references Fforde crams each page with. There are aliens in this strange other-England, aliens who are quite boring, really—they speak in binary, and have no concept of how to interact with people. Mary Mary is from Basingstoke, which is nothing to be ashamed of. Miz Hubbard is the most crotchety landlady in existence, her dogs perpetually boneless. And the heroes of Reading are the unsung heroes of the Nursery Crime Division, where everything usually works out the way you’d expect it to.
The greatest part, for me, of The Big Over Easy was Fforde’s imagining of a police force more concerned with plot than justice—The Knox Decalogue run amok. The chapters are headed with hilarious faux news clippings—“Police Shocked to find Butler Really Did Do It”—“Chymes Undertakes Effort to Break Fastest Solution Record; Dismayed to Learn Murders Can’t Be Ordered For the Purpose”—and the desire for a good story will lead men (and women) down dark roads. Fforde gives us a glimpse into that world we escape to when we read mystery novels (particularly those of the Golden Age and before)—if Sherlock Holmes were really all the police had to solve crimes, there’d be lots of dashing about in hansom cabs in the fog and precious little of the police methodology that Spratt and his coterie use. Even if nobody believes them when they say that the wolf was just a victim of porcine-on-lupine torture, the NCD still has to try.