Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Big Over Easy - Jasper Fforde

It seems to be quite common these days for authors to write a standard PI/police procedural mystery, stick in a couple of witches/aliens/fairy tale characters (but not actually any jokes) and call it Comic Fantasy. Fortunately, Jasper Fforde is not guilty of this, and has put together a very good and entertaining story. He even manages to make the book entirely different from Robert Rankin's Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse despite using exactly the same plot (someone called Jack investigates the murder of Humpty Dumpty) - to be fair, he apparently hadn't even heard of the Rankin book when writing this one, though announcing how original his ideas were in front of Robert was probably not his smartest ever move.

The story is set, not in Toytown or Nurseryville, but Reading - yes, the rust-belt, arsehole-of-the-M4 town that we all know and love. For some reason, Reading is a haven for nursery-rhyme and fairy-tale characters, who live happily alongside the normal residents and even have a branch of the Reading police force dedicated to them, the Nursery Crimes Division. Unfortunately, police-work is judged on newsworthy plot and subsequent TV spin-offs, and DI Jack Spratt of the NCD just can't generate headlines like his rival detectives, leaving his department in danger of closure. The Humpty Dumpty murder looks like it could be the case to save his department and his career, but other headline-hungry detectives are also after the case...

Nursery rhyme references pepper the story with great comic timing, and there are some excellent pastiches of modern TV detective fiction. The idea of the police force only dealing with crimes that make for good dramatic reconstructions looks initially a bit contrived, but within a few pages it stops being quite so jarring, and you can just sit back and enjoy the ride. Even the slight satirical references to modern culture (often forced in fantasy, and which can quickly become dated) are forgiveable. The one thing that really looked out of place was the mysterious artifact, the Sacred Gonga - in a story where everything is either real-world familiar or a reference to a well-known fairy tale, suddenly introducing something brand new and then not even describing it makes for some confusing reading.

So, not perfect, but very entertaining, and much better than I was expecting. Evidently, even hackneyed old formulae can sometimes yield very good results.



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