Posted by: Neil Hollands
He’s best known for his first series, Thursday Next, set in an alternate world where literary agents and criminals can cross back and forth between the real world and the worlds of books such as Jane Eyre (thus the first title The Eyre Affair), but Welsh author Jasper Fforde is a versatile humorist, and I actually prefer some of his other work.
Fforde’s Nursery Crimes series takes places in another alternate world, one in which nursery rhyme characters live side by side with regular people. Rather than being notable, many of them are seedy, overlooked, or just considered odd. The first book The Big Over Easy picks up the story of the Nursery Crimes Division, a ragtag police force in a world where the best detectives–members of the Most Worshipful Guild of Detectives–are famous for the published accounts of their adventures (which always sound like contrived mystery novels). The protagonist, Inspector Jack Spratt, is not in the Guild. He’s a family man who quietly goes about his work, and is always outshines (and undermined) by his rival Freedland Chimes.
Aided by young Detective Sargent Mary Mary, Spratt is working in this book to solve the murder of Humpty Dumpty. He’s just off a failed attempt to convict the three pigs of the murder of Mr. Wolf, and if he doesn’t succeed this time, Spratt and the rest of the Nursery Crimes Division may lose funding entirely. The fun is in discovering all of the allusions, puns, and jokes along the way, some of which are blatant and other surprisingly subtle. Spratt is trying to live down his reputation for killing giants (mostly accidentally, and not really giants, just tall people). He encounters mafia boss Georgio Porgia, a down-on-his-heels Prometheus, a homicidal Gingerbreadman, and many others.
This isn’t heady literature, but it should be fun reading for anyone who loves English humor, book references, or mysteries. Rather than trying to sustain a deep discussion, your book group might enjoy cataloging the many allusions that appear in the book or recounting their favorite jokes. The second book, The Fourth Bear, is just as fun, involving an escaped Gingerbreadman and the disappearance of reporter Goldy Hatchett, last seen by Three Bears living quietly in Andersen’s Wood.
Rather than choosing just these books, your group might prefer to discuss a range of comic mysteries. Fforde’s series reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, particularly the books about The Watch (which begin with Guards! Guards!) or the Dirk Gently series by Douglas Adams (which opens with Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency).