A cracked take on a fairy tale

By Anita Sama, USA TODAY

In our crazy, ever-changing culture, classic literature is the sane, immutable constant.

And then, there's Jasper Fforde.

Fans who have followed the four books in his Thursday Next series found a detective moving in a riotous universe that allows traveling into Shakespeare's plays and tampering with the novels of Austen and Dickens.

This time, Fforde's wild imagination shifts to the deceptively cozier venue of fairy tale and nursery rhyme. The Big Over Easy is billed as a case in the "Nursery Crime Division" of the Reading Police Force, and the victim is a transmogrified Humpty Dumpty. But he's not the one we met in early childhood; he's a womanizer, often drunk, given to shady business dealings. In short, a bad egg.

Ouch, you say? You ain't read nothing yet. Clever wordplay abounds.

He's only one of the inhabitants of this oddball town in Fforde's looking-glass literary world. Nothing is quite as it seems. Is Reading the English city? Or the act of eyeballs on paper?

In either case, this town is peopled with suspects - not exactly "peopled," because there are a few giants and a pale blue space alien.

Other inhabitants include Wee Willie Winkie, a shift worker with a sleep disorder; old Mrs. Hubbard, the not-so-motherly landlady; and notorious crime boss Giorgio Porgio.

The crime solvers are Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and Sgt. Mary Mary, their partnership a weird recasting of crime queen Elizabeth George's Inspector Thomas Lynley and sidekick Barbara Havers. As Jack and Mary probe Humpty's fatal fall from a wall (natch) into 126 pieces, they try to determine whether he was pushed and if so, whodunit?

The mystery is incidental to the careening plot. The real purpose of crime-solving in Reading seems to be generating fodder for the pulp bible of overblown detection, Amazing Crime Stories.

Along the way to the mystery's solution, Fforde pokes fun at the stereotypes of highbrow and lowbrow detective fiction, including a sideswipe at The Da Vinci Code.

Over Easy is an interesting reminder of the violent nature of the building blocks of children's literature. Greek myths and fairy tales are turned inside out, familiar names surface in peculiar circumstances. It's as if the Marx brothers were let loose in the children's section of a strange bookstore - a duck soup of loony lit.

How else to describe a plot that turns on the discovery of a giant wart and turns again on a stale sandwich used as a detonator?

Fforde wrote Over Easy before his Thursday Next novels were published. He has said his goal was to start with nursery-rhyme characters and then move to the more complicated creatures of adult fiction.

But when The Eyre Affair became somewhat of a cult hit, he built on that series with three more. Two additional Jack Spratt books are planned. The next: The Fourth Bear.

These and other facts - and way more non-facts - can be found at www.jasperfforde.com, a multi-layered playground not unlike his books.

In whatever form he delivers his writing, Fforde is above all funny. His self-styled "daft novels" are not for the lazy brained but for the actively engaged reader, one who knows the secret pleasures of a word puzzle and can draw on a lifetime of literature.

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