Fun, but as with most everything I like, complicated.
The story begins with Mary Mary being shown around Reading Central Police Station by Superintendent Briggs. She needed a transfer, and Reading was home to the famous DCI Friedland Chymes, known across England for his exploits in Amazing Crime Stories. Mary had high hopes of being assigned to Chymes’ team, but is instead assigned to partner with Jack Spratt, of the department of Nursery Crimes. You know–those crimes having to do with people (so to speak) from nursery stories. Unfortunately, Jack (and the department) is facing intense scrutiny after NCI’s failed efforts to charge the three pigs with the murder of Mr. Wolff. But there isn’t time to fret.The next morning, Jack and Mary are sent to Humpty Dumpty’s accidental death/apparent suicide, only the more they learn, the more suspicious it gets.
If Fforde was content to stay with the nursery crime premise, the narrative would be relatively straightforward mystery, albeit with a fair number of detours and rest stops on the road to solving the murder. However, along the way we also meet the Jellyman, and the Sacred Gonga, the holy figure of the country of Splotvia, so it feels a little extra absurd. The first time through it was more than a bit a puzzle, and I breezed over those parts. I think they might be a sort of indirect commentary on the Dalai Lama and Tibet, but I could be wrong. Regardless, it’s more a silly aside than the main focus of the story, which is the Humpty murder.
“Mrs. Singh rang with some figures. They can’t be certain, as so much of Humpty’s albumen was washed away by the rain, but indications show he was twenty-six times the legal limit for driving. Even so, she reckons he would still have been conscious–it’s something to do with his coefficient of volume.”
‘That’s one seriously pickled egg,’ murmured Jack.”
The humor is fun, but because it is quite present, it can interfere with the momentum of the mystery. Much like watching Monty Python, at a certain point, it’s just a bit much. The silliness –there’s an alien whose native tongue is binary, as in 0100111– undermining the tension of the plot, and it isn’t really until the final fifty pages that it feels quite exciting. That’s not to say it’s bad, but that this isn’t the story to keep you up after bedtime. (Yay!) But the ending is exceedingly clever, and it’s quite unbelievable that Fforde was able to make all the elements come together.
“‘Everything,’ said the biohazard agent, with the buoyant tone of someone who has just been given a lot of power and is keen to try it out.”
The writing is clever. There’s a lot of humanity in the characters, even Humpty. Mary was the most problematic for me–being quite contrary and all–until she changes her outlook. It’s the sort of book that works best if you are able to hold absurdity in your mind and yet still take the mystery seriously, as Jack does. People die, even nursery rhyme characters, and much like any honest detective, Jack is determined to do right by the victim, as well as protect the public. It’s an interesting mood mash-up that won’t work for everyone, but for those who like that sort of thing, it should work very well.