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Fractured fairy tales

Paula L. Woods is a regular contributor to Book Review and author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series, including the forthcoming "Strange Bedfellows."

BRITISH writer Jasper Fforde has been building a worldwide cadre of readers since 2002’s “The Eyre Affair,” which introduced Special Operative Thursday Next. Her adventures in an alternate universe were a cleverly plotted, quirky gumbo of literature, mystery and fantasy. But after four books, Fforde’s plots had become increasingly twisted, which probably pleased long-term fans but may have befuddled those who came to the series, shall we say, midstream of consciousness. So the arrival of “The Big Over Easy,” the first book in a new Nursery Crime series, comes as a respite and detour from the characters and literary vein Fforde had so adeptly mined.

Or perhaps it’s not a respite at all, since amid the wordplay and literary allusions of the Thursday Next series, Fforde managed not only to work in some biting commentary on writing genre fiction but, it now appears, also might have set up readers for the jump to the Nursery Crime universe.

In Thursday’s third outing, “The Well of Lost Plots,” she encountered Reading Det. Inspector Jack Spratt, who bemoaned the lack of originality in a thriller in which he appears as a loner with a drinking problem. Thursday’s advice? Try something different, give up the liquor and go home to the wife. “If things go well,” she added, “you might even be in ... a sequel.”

Thursday’s words proved prophetic, since “The Big Over Easy” features a slightly altered Jack, sans drinking problem and now sporting a loving family and a pathetically clunky car. The antithesis of the standard-issue English crime fighter, Jack is a boring but basically decent guy, if you can overlook the fact that he exhibits traits of several nursery rhyme Jacks, including a propensity for causing the demise of more than a few giants.

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Jack toils in yet another alternate universe, this one featuring crimes solved by brilliant sleuths like the handsome Det. Chief Inspector Friedland Chymes, “the most alpha of alpha males.” Chymes belongs to the exalted Guild of Detectives, which claims as members the slightly skewed inspectors Moose and Dogleash.

The guild won’t admit Jack, because he hasn’t published a suitably twisted tale in Amazing Crime Stories or Sleuth Illustrated. It’s a failing that is not only personally embarrassing to Jack, but also has implications for his publicity-starved Nursery Crime Division. “Modern policing isn’t just about catching criminals,” warns Jack’s commanding officer, Briggs. “It’s about good copy and ensuring that cases can be made into top-notch documentaries on the telly. Public approval is the all important currency these days, and police budgets ebb and flow on the back of circulation and viewing figures.”

Words that could have been spoken by any big-city police administrator, not to mention a publisher or network television executive. Luckily, things begin to look up for Jack and the Nursery Crime Division when Humperdinck Jehoshaphat Aloysius Stuyvesant van Dumpty, a.k.a. Humpty Dumpty, falls from a wall in a drunken stupor, or so everyone wants to believe. But Jack wonders -- could Dumpty have been pushed? His dogged pursuit of the answer to that question reveals corporate and political skulduggery that plunges him, his sergeant/sidekick (the ambitious contrarian Mary Mary) and their oddball colleagues into a whacked-out world where, in addition to Dumpty’s amorous conquests and shady business dealings, readers learn he may also be connected to the double murder of Mr. Christian and his wife in Andersen’s Wood.

“The Big Over Easy” is so full of nursery rhyme references, puns and literary asides (not to mention the occasional ad and illustration) that it’s hard not to laugh out loud while reading this fantastical sendup of a police procedural. But like the best novels of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, Fforde goes beyond his genre, skewering everything from celebrity-obsessed media to political demigods to the pitifulness of law enforcement agencies whose mottoes have devolved to “protect, serve and entertain the nation.”

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Although a passing knowledge of Mother Goose, Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm would help, “The Big Over Easy” is a thoroughly enjoyable read for those without any familiarity with the Thursday Next series. That said, there is a special treat on Fforde’s Nursery Crime website for those who finish “The Big Over Easy” that will turn one’s assumptions about the book inside out -- which seems fitting for a writer who takes special delight in doing just that. *


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