2008-02-25

Book Review 22: A fun, absurd mystery

Her name was Mary. Mary Mary. And she was from Basingstock, which is nothing to be ashamed of.

"Mary?" said an officer who was carrying a large, potted plant in the manner of someone who thinks it is well outside his job description. "Superintendant Briggs will see you know. How often do you water these things?"

"That one?" replied Mary without emotion. "Never. It's plastic."

"I'm a policeman," he said unhappily. "Not a sodding gardener."

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I picked up "The Big Over Easy" by Jasper Fforde because I wanted a nice, easy read, that required very little brain power. I mean, it's a book about the murder of a giant egg. How complex could it be?

I was wonderfully, pleasantly disappointed.

Fforde's tale of murder, ambition, conspiracy, mythology, and politics is an amazing and humorous romp through the universe of children's nursery rhymes and fairy tales.

This is book is not a fairy tale, however.

The book is about the murder of alcoholic, and shady business man, Humpty Dumpty. Jack Spratt (who of course eats no fat) , with the Nursery Crimes Division of the Redding police deportment investigates with his trusty sidekick, Mary Mary. Their adventures take them to discussions with Mrs. Hubbard, Willie Winkie, Soloman Grundy, Georgio Porgia, and characters intimately tied to traditional nursery rhymes. It's not limited to the universe of the Brothers Grimm. Prometheus is here as well.

This fantastic world is part of our own universe. The characters interact with humans and are readily accepted. They seem to be just a small part of the populace, however. Jack Spratt's jurisdiction covers all crimes relating to this odd population.

It's not just a romp through the nursery, however. Jack and the NCD compete with his arch rival Friedland Chymes for attention and budget.

Not that NCD was consistently racked with failure -- far from it -- but the fact was that few of his cases attracted much publicity. And in the all-important climate of increased public confidence, budget accountability, and Amazing Crime circulation figures, Friedland's crowd-pleasing antics were strides ahead of Jack's misadventures -- and hugely profitable for the Redding police department, too. But all of this was scant comfort to Mr. Wolff who went to his casket unavenged and parboiled.

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In addition to this complex background and social commentary, The Big Over Easy has a great whodunit element to the book. The mystery is compelling and never fails to surprise. Each time I though I knew what was going to happen, Fforde changed direction.

The writing style is fun and enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed the way de described Jack's cat and Jack's mother's cats.

"Da-woo!" screamed Stevie [Jack's baby], waving a spoon as he scattered food around the room, much to the pleasure of the cat, with whom, it was generally agreed Stevie had an "understanding." Ripvan -- as in "Winkle," naturally -- was the laziest cat that had ever lived, ever. She would sleep in corridors, roads, paths, puddles, gutters -- anywhere she felt tired. She would rather sit in the cold and have to revived with a hair dryer than trouble herself to use the cat flap. If she hadn't the sense to lie on her back under Stevie's high chair with her mouth open, she would probably have starved.

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She opened the door within two second of his pressing the doorbell, letting out a stream of cats that ran around with such rapidity, and randomness of motion that they assumed a liquid state of fury purringness. The exact quantity could have been as low as three or as high as one hundred eight; no one could ever tell as they were all so dangerously hyperactive.

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Some of the humor in the book doesn't come across on a quick scan of the page. Sometimes it helps to read things out load to actually get the joke. Since nursery rhymes were never meant to be read silently, this makes sense.

The other officer was a woman. She was very tall and willowy and had long straight hair made into a single plait. She looked as though she had been heated up at birth and then drawn out like a soft candle. She was over six foot two, and when she ran, it looked as if she were in slow motion, like a giraffe. In the park where she jogged every morning, there were at least two dozen men and two women there for no other reason than to watch her.

"Mary, this is Constable the Baroness Gretel Leibnitz von Kandlestyk-Maker, all the way from Cologne. She doesn't know what she's doing here, and we don't know what she's doing here, but we're glad she is because she's a damn fine officer.

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To help set the context for what is about to happen, Fforde starts of each chapter with snippets of text from various publications in this universe.

The Reading genetic industry suffered a severe blow last night when the Quatt Foundation for Genetic Research was closed following its owners admission that she conducted morally dubious experiments. "So I kept a monkey brain alive in a jar," said the disgraced Dr. Quatt, "so what? It's only a bit of fun." Once the nation's foremost expert in reptillian genome mapping and skilled at grafting frogs' legs on to whippets, Dr. Quatt has been permanently banned from funded research. The disgraced pariah of the medical establishment has been shunned by every decent hospital in the nation, except St. Cerebellum's, which asked if she could start Monday.

Page 107

There were laughs all around the Redding Central Criminal Court this morning where a comical jury-bribing mix-up brought a moment of levity to otherwise somber proceedings. Sources close the judge tell us that through an administrative error, sharpened-chisel-wielding mobster Giorgio Porgia had been paying off the wrong jury in his celebrated trial for demanding home improvements with menaces. "What a mix-up!"grinned Mr. Justice Trousers after adjournment. "It's hilarious moments like this that make the courts such a fun place to work!" The "bought" jury in a nearby court, who were trying a dangerous dog, found the pooch in question not guilty, and decided, in an unprecedented move, that the postman had bitten the dog. The postman was muzzled for a month and ordered to pay £10,000 in damages.

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He uses this tool well. He gets to tell us more about the town and its prominent residents, and yet he doesn't have to tell it through the main characters eyes. It's a way of giving more information without actually interrupting the flow of the story, or making Jack and Mary give long expositions.

Fforde doesn’t limit the characters to just the story however. He tackles larger cultural and philosophical issues by letting his characters go off on their own rants. These are often not essential to the plot, but they also don't get in the way of it. They do flesh out the characters and let Fforde comment on the world without making his main character do it.

"Hah!" Lola spat contemptuously. "Being waited on by an army of cosmetic surgeons? No thanks. What you see is what I am. I've not had my boobs done or my arse lifted, no nips, no tucks. No ribs removed, nothing. Those little strumpets we see on the silver screen today are mostly bathroom sealant. They buy their breasts over the counter. 'What would you like, honey, small, medium, or large?' They give us stick insects and tell us it's beauty. If someone of their size went for an audition in my day, she'd have been shown a square meal and told to come back when she was a stone heavier. What's wrong with curves? Anyone over a ten these days is regarded not as an average-sized woman but a marketing opportunity. Cream for this, pills for that, superfluous hair, collagen injection, quick-weight-loss diets. Where's it going to end? We're pressured to spend so much money and effort to be the 'perfect' shape, when that shape is physically attainable by only one woman in a million. It's the cold face of capitalism, boy and girls, preying on misguided expectations. Besides, I've always found perfection an overrated commodity."

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Prometheus [the Titan from Greek mythology] looked over at her. "Of course not. But you have to look at the big picture. I've seen the alternative. Eternal slavery under the gods. Believe me, this is a bed of roses in comparison. Think of this: if it weren't for greed, intolerance, hate, passion, and murder, you would have no works of art, no great buildings, no medical science, no Mozart, no van Gough, no Muppets, and no Louis Armstrong. The civilization that devises the infrastructure to allow these wonderful things to be created is essentially a product of war -- death and suffering -- and commerce -- deceit and inequality. Even your liberty to discuss the shortcomings of your own species has its foundation in blood and hardship."

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Some of the references are almost throw aways. They are easy to miss. He take classic tales or songs and expands the picture.

An ancient gray mare stood in a muddy pasture and tossed her head as the allegro approached, but since she was badly myopic, it might have been a lime green elephant for all she knew. She blew out twin blasts of hot breath in the cold morning air and thought about the good old days when she chased across fields with lots of other horses, leaping hedges and galloping after something that her rider wanted her to catch but rarely did. She watched the green elephant drive slowly passed and then leaned sleepily against the gatepost.

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I'm certain I missed a lot of the subtle references in the book. I may need to brush up on my nursery rhymes and read the book again.

The Big Over Easy is a great mystery novel. The plot is complex and surprising. The characters are fun. The writing style keeps things moving along. The humor is a wonderful mix of dry lines, puns, slapstick situations and entertaining descriptions.

If you are a fan of the absurd or enjoy a good mystery, I highly recommend The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde.

You can find more of my book reviews here.

8 comments:

Aerten said...

Thanks!! I'm a huge fan of Forde's. I'm off to get this one on my reading list immediately!

Catherine said...

And if you liked The Big Over Easy, make sure you read its sequel, The Fourth Bear - it's just as good!

Jenz Iggo said...

I enjoyed reading the cut sections. Would look around for fForde next time in a bookstore!

Mo said...

I read the first book in the Fforde series, and just couldn't get into 'em.

Lis said...

I love Fforde. If you enjoyed his nursery crime books, you should also check out his Thursday Next series.

My Den said...

I have never read any books by Jasper Fforde. Sounds interesting. Going to check it out. Thanks for the tip.
Dan

Heather said...

I just finished The Eyre Affair, of the Thursday Next series... and LOVED it. Your review is encouraging me to keep going with the Fforde trend in my current reading habits.
As if i needed more fiction to read instead of doing my research. LOL.
Thanks for the great review!

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