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The New York Times
July 22 2005
The Big Over Easy
Review by Janet Maslin

The Big Over Easy, by Jasper Fforde

BOOKS OF THE TIMES; To Whip Up a Pythonesque SoufflÈ: An Egg and a Hard-Boiled Detective

Jasper Fforde is able to write diabolically even in a book that has Humpty Dumpty as its central character. And since he writes like a charter member of Punsters Anonymous, Mr. Fforde could undoubtedly skip from the preceding sentence to deviled eggs in a trice.

Outrageous satirical agility is his stock in trade: Mr. Fforde has made that clear in a string of literary parodies that pry well-known characters loose from their native novels and plays. Hamlet was on the loose in ''Something Rotten.'' Jane Eyre will never be the same after ''The Eyre Affair.'' Now Mr. Fforde introduces a second series, this one concentrating on what he calls Nursery Crime. The first installment is such a relentless parody of mystery writing that Humpty Dumpty is inevitably referred to as ''the fall guy.''

Not many tricks of the mystery-writing trade escape Mr. Fforde's comedic attention. Indeed, the treat in reading him lies in realizing that there's nothing he won't try. So logic prevails, but only to a point: the book's main character, Detective Inspector Jack Spratt, dislikes eating fat in the manner of his nursery-rhyme namesake. But Mr. Fforde is also sporting enough to make this Jack a giant killer, too. He throws in a beanstalk for good measure.

In a novel supposedly accompanied by a ''Making of'' documentary, with deleted scenes and outtakes, Mr. Fforde gets thing started by assigning D.I. Spratt to the Dumpty investigation. The crime scene is described with tongue-in-cheek attention to forensic detail. (''Jack noted a thin and hairless leg -- still with a shoe and sock -- attached to a small area of eggshell draped with tattered sheets of translucent membrane.'') Then there is the requisite moody-detective moment of contemplating this cruel turn of fate. ''Humpty had been a jolly chap then, full of life and jokes,'' Mr. Fforde writes. ''Jack paused for a moment and stared silently at the corpse.''

Like the Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket books, this one is abundantly playful without being truly geared to children. Anyone who has ever been read a nursery rhyme -- and who can tolerate heavy doses of Monty Pythonesque silliness -- can appreciate Mr. Fforde's outlandish joking.

After a glancing reference to Spratt's last case, ''The Crown v. Three Pigs,'' in which the murder victim, Mr. Wolff, ''went to his casket unavenged and parboiled,'' Mr. Fforde is ready to go anywhere. Soon he has introduced a whiff of Greek mythology at the home of Mrs. Hubbard, Humpty's landlady. (''Sorry, pooch,'' she says. ''No bones for you today.'' ) Her other lodger turns out to be Prometheus. ''The Titan Prometheus? The one who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind?'' Jack asks.

''I've no concern with what he does in his private life,'' Mrs. Hubbard answers. ''He pays the rent on time, so he's O.K. with me.''

Mr. Fforde can easily decorate Prometheus' room with olive pits, a bottle of retsina and holiday posters of the Greek Islands; that kind of throwaway cackle is a cinch for him. What's harder is draping all these delightful gags onto any semblance of a plot. So ''The Big Over Easy'' is better read as a string of anything-goes witticisms than for its tale of the Dumpty investigation. And the author is best appreciated for being able to work clues -- like a single, red, 28-foot-long human hair (hello, Rapunzel) -- into the book's general craziness.

It would be hard to persuade hard-core mystery aficionados to read a novel about a dead celebrity egg. (Humpty, he of the specially tailored Armani wardrobe, kept a framed photo of a FabergÈ egg and a Tenniel illustration of him from ''Through the Looking Glass'' on his wall.) But the funniest parts of ''The Big Over Easy'' are its sendups of mystery fiction protocol. ''The entire crime-writing fraternity yesterday bade a tearful farewell to the last 'locked room' mystery at a large banquet held in its honor,'' the book duly reports.

One eulogy states that this beloved plot contrivance ''will always remain in our hearts.'' But the departed plot trick turns out to have been murdered itself -- and in a locked room at that. Other favorite clues and gimmicks, from secret twins to anagrams, are similarly taken to task.

Then there are the stars of the detective genre -- whose main objectives appear to be showing off (''the missing will, which I found hidden -- as expected --within a hollowed-out statuette of Sir Walter Scott'') and becoming famous. ''Modern policing isn't just about catching criminals,'' one character explains. ''It's about good copy and ensuring that cases can be made into top-notch documentaries on the telly.''

And there is much envy of the most famous detective characters. ''Charming man, Hercule,'' one character says of Agatha Christie's Poirot, ''but a tad overrated. All that 'little gray cells' stuff he goes on about. A lot of the time he's simply surfing on a rich stream of luck.''

With this nimble parody -- and its wild jibes at anything from the infamous repainting of a Diego Rivera mural to the supposed flop movie made out of one of his own earlier books -- Mr. Fforde can be said to be doing the same.

By Janet Maslin      To see the NY Times website click HERE

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