The Big Over Easy
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005
US First Edition Hardcover
Publication Date: 07-16-2005
386 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 08-01-05
It always comes down to the characters. You have to love them, really love them, or else nothing works; science fiction, mystery, satire, surrealism, it's all down how much the reader wants to turn the pages and find out what happens to the people who propel the story. And it had better be the people propelling the story, not the other way around. In the beginning and all the way to the end, the characters are what make Jasper Fforde's latest novel, 'The Big Over Easy' so appealing, even if it isn’t actually his newest novel. Yes, the book is laden with the usual fun that one finds in Fforde's novels. There are enough literary jokes to fill a shelf full of reference books. There are enough genre jokes to start three specialty bookshops; mystery, science fiction and fantasy. There are enough moments of surreal strangeness to send even the most staid-minded readers straight to the silly farm. And there are enough jokes that are entirely unclassifiable to make laugh lines a serious worry. Schedule your plastic surgery after reading this book, not before. Yes, all this humor and all this intelligence make it all the more important that Jack Spratt not be a dull boy. Instead, he's a wonderfully compelling Everyman, the kind of perfectly sober and low-key guy to help you navigate through Fforde's latest testament to the idea that too much is never enough.
Readers of Fforde's Thursday Next novels have nothing worry about here on two levels. First, Fforde does intend to return to Thursday Next. But most importantly for those wondering whether or not to invest in this novel, well, there is the kind of continuity that you would hope for between the Next novels -- set in Fforde's wacky late-eighties -- and this one, set in the current day -- well, except that it's set in no world you're likely to be fortunate enough to find yourself in. Still, the hooks are there, but the story, the approach and the characters are all new.
'The Big Over Easy' is a very gritty, down-to-earth mystery that just happens to be about the murder of Humpty Stuyvesant van Dumpty, well-liked rascal who played fast and loose with the cash and the ladies, doing rather well for himself considering that he was a large walking and talking egg. But you get a lot of that when you're stuck in the Nursery Crime Division, and Jack Spratt, the quintessential nice guy who has made a career of finishing last gets more than most. He's not the most competent cop in the world, having just expended big bucks trying to put the three little pigs in jail for boiling the big bad wolf, who, Jack contends, did not deserve to die. His new assistant, Mary Mary is made of more ambitious stuff. She's openly interested in leaving the NCD -- Nursery Crime Division -- behind, and as they launch an investigation into what appears to be a simple accident, the layers peel back and reveal something rather more complex.
In 'The Big Over Easy', Fforde offers readers many of the pleasures of his previous novels and as many new pleasures. First and foremost are the characters, Jack Spratt and Mary Mary. Jack is the antithesis of the typical detective hero -- married with five children, he drives a dull economy car and has no bad habits. As he's introduced, it's possible to worry that he's too much of a chump to like. But nobody proves the power of positive underestimation as well as Fforde, and as he does, he provides that quintessential reading pleasure, the joy of seeing a character vindicated. Eventually. And only after lots of hand-wringing scenes of tension. Mary Mary is not quite contrary, but she is driven and surprisingly willing to cut corners. The combination of the two proves to be utterly enchanting.
The world that Fforde sets them loose in is considerably grimmer than that of Thursday Next. Here's where Fforde's descriptive skills shine, as he piles on the grit, the grot and the grime to portray a skewed vision of our world as a pseudo-Victorian hell-hole where the rich are only remotely connected to reality and the rest are forced to struggle just to get by. Wait, that sounds a lot like our world. And that's the beauty of Fforde's vision. It's so relentlessly pinned down with only slightly distressing details that it helps bring out the warmth in the characters and allows Fforde to pull off his fairy-tale conceit with complete success -- at least for this reader.
And yes, there's quite a lot of silly surface to deal with as well. If you've never read Fforde, then you're liable to get caught up in his endlessly wild sense of invention and miss the subtleties of character and place. To my mind, first-time Fforde readers might be better off reading the 'The Eyre Affair'. He so relentlessly and successfully satirizes the very genres he loves -- mystery and science fiction via his Lewis-Carrollesque fantasy -- that readers might well ask themselves, "Is that all there is?"
It's not. Beyond the characters and the gritty setting, Fforde provides an A1-actual mystery to propel the plot, a mystery that subtly shifts the parameters of crime fiction from our world into his own. He punches it up with plot twists and mind-twists that are outrageously entertaining. If the mystery genre exists as a separate entity somewhere, it's certainly contemplating legal action. It doesn't have a chance however, because Fforde writes such a good procedural that readers will be hard-put to notice that he's got a gripping forensic scene discussing the cracks in Dumpty's shell.
With 'The Big Over Easy', Fforde gives himself some range and turns out a few neat new tricks while retaining the appeal of his previous novels. This one is more precisely aimed at the mystery genre, which it torments so wittily and so knowingly, the case is quite clearly closed long before the book will be. Yes, the mystery genre is guilty, guilty of many crimes, detailed here with wit, verve and imagination. Fforde makes it so clear that the genre is guilty that readers will want to thrown the book at it -- but not this one.