Character Witnesses

By Carolyn See,
who may be reached at
Friday, July 22, 2005


A Nursery Crime

By Jasper Fforde

Viking. 383 pp. $24.95

The place is Reading, England; the time is now. Everyone has cell phones, drives a car and suffers the usual ailments. But in Jasper Fforde's newly created Reading, the town's residents peacefully coexist with nursery-rhyme characters, aliens from outer space and an occasional Titan. Thus we're introduced to Detective Jack Spratt, who has lived something of a double life: He is indeed the Jack who could eat no fat and whose wife could eat no lean (he lives with a pleasant second wife now because his first wife's fat-only diet led to her untimely demise), but he has a violent side. He bears a reputation for having slain giants, although he insists he killed only one real giant; the others were merely very tall. Jack soon acquires an assistant, Mary Mary, who isn't contrary at all -- quite agreeable and efficient, actually. The crime they've been assigned to is a tough one: Humpty Dumpty, while sitting on his outside wall, drunk as a lord, has taken a great fall. He's nothing but albumen and eggshell now, and it looks like murder.

The trouble is, nobody in Reading cares about nursery crimes anymore. The general public has taken to looking at crime in a whole different way -- as a form of mass entertainment, with a focus on ace detectives in the British mode, including sleuths like Miss Marple and her many male counterparts. Jack's particular nemesis in the department is an unethical lowlife named Friedland Chymes, who deals only with "real" murderers. But he habitually ignores the prosaic facts in any case, tweaking them with melodramatic plot devices to further his career. His goal is to place as many yanked-from-the-headlines items in the mass media as possible so as to become a household name in detection. Chymes is a big shot in the Most Worshipful Guild of Detectives, a group that rates other detectives in terms of acumen and flamboyance, celebrity and fame. It's a given that Jack will never be admitted to the Guild, for reasons that we may find out later.

I should also say by way of background that Fforde's Reading is supported economically by two vast rival factories -- both manufacturers of a plethora of foot-care commodities. The more successful is run by Solomon Grundy, who has married Rapunzel, a girl far younger than he. The other company, fading fast, is owned by Randolph Spongg IV. He has long been a doer of good deeds in the town, but it looks as if his venerable business is about to go belly up. Put another way, Spongg can no longer put his best foot forward. These two industrial giants are locked in a fight to the death.

Why would anyone want to read this book, when there are so many other volumes around that have the power to amuse you, improve you or both? I haven't the foggiest idea. The author plainly aims to be funny, but the first time he coaxed the ghost of a smile out of me was on Page 64, in one of his lengthy chapter headings compiled from imaginary periodicals of the time, this one from the Owl newspaper, dated Jan. 13, 1962: "OYSTERS ONE STEP CLOSER TO VOTE," which is further explained below: "Animal rights took a giant leap away from the dark ages yesterday with the passing of the Animal (anthropomorphic) Equality Bill." This kind of humor isn't for everyone, nor is it meant to be. Fforde, the author of four similarly zany books about a futuristic literary detective named Thursday Next who solves such crimes as an attempted kidnapping of Jane Eyre, is following a grand English tradition of dealing with serious issues while hiding behind a screen of deliberate nonsense. It may take a while to get in step with him, but it's worth the trouble.

In children's-lit circles, anthropomorphism -- such as the creation of talking animals like that wonderful bear, Baloo, who takes such good care of Mowgli in "The Jungle Book," or the sardonically hissing snake Kaa in the same work -- is considered hopelessly out of date and somehow politically incorrect. But every infant born either in England or the United States will still probably be given copies of Mother Goose rhymes, the Grimm brothers' stories or Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales. Thus all of us have the Three Bears and the Three Little Pigs and the Fiddlers Three, as well as sundry witches and no-hopers. As we "grow up," we tend to forget these original inhabitants of our baby minds and replace them with thoughts of war, famine, rent, meals. But those characters still live within us, and Fforde takes advantage of these indelible memories to tell his tales.

So, as the woefully underestimated Spratt and Mary Mary track down who might have murdered Humpty Dumpty, the author gently invites us to consider what kind of being that undeniably fat and comparatively well-dressed egg might be like -- a lover of food and drink, of course, and a womanizer, but a good egg nonetheless. And Humpty seemed to have had plenty of money to throw around; could that have had something to do with the goose who lays golden eggs?

Besides the animals and fairy tale characters, there are plenty of others: Fforde gives us a mad scientist who spends her free time sewing the heads of kittens on fish; Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity, ends up down on his luck, as a lodger in Jack's house; and of course, there are the aliens, who speak mostly in binary numbers.

In defense of this looniness, haven't we all met people we secretly believe come from outer space? And don't most of us have a Big Bad Wolf we're totally spooked by, whether it be poverty, a guy who's stalking us or the communist menace? And haven't we -- hard workers like Rapunzel -- all been given impossible tasks by awful bosses like Rumpelstiltskin? And some of us -- like Humpty -- have surely overindulged until we felt as round and fragile as an egg and about to break at any moment.

Fforde also takes the opportunity to make fun of the whole genre of English detective fiction -- all the "locked room" murders, the use of identical twins (in which the other twin committed the crime), the butlers, the country-house parties. Jack Spratt takes time to muse that the little town where Miss Marple (whom he calls Miss Maple) lives used to be a peaceful and sweet place until she came along and turned it into a charnel house.

So there's something here for everyone, in theory. But don't be persnickety about it. If you don't care how the egg died, don't come whining to me.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company