A clever, funny and surreal whodunnit, part of a series of novels; in fact after I’d finished reading it I found out that in an earlier novel one of his characters decided to lie low for a while by hiding out in an “unpublishable novel”: this one (he’d had earlier versions rejected by publishers). But I was unaware of this, because, obviously, this character was in hiding.
Humpty Dumpty is found dead at the foot of a wall… DI Jack Spratt, of the Nursery Crime Division (echoes of Genesis in the name) of Reading Police, is assigned the inquiry, and it goes on from there. Fforde creates an incredibly complex world, ontologically, and how and whether it works particularly interests me: it’s ordinary Reading, but with characters from fairy tales and detective fiction alive and real. Humpty’s death is the novel’s crime to solve, and a suspect’s wife is Rapunzel, who’d been having an affair with the serial philandering egg. Fforde seems to be in some ontological soup: firstly, the stories from which his characters come do seem to be known in the world – in which case their actions are fated, and Spratt could just read about their crimes in advance. Also, the fairy-tale characters seem to be more-or-less limited to performing the actions in the stories, so, once they’ve all acted out the stories, there’s nothing left – the Nursery Crimes Division would exist for a short burst of fictional felony, and then nothing. In the climactic fight between Spratt and a monster engineered by a mad GM scientist (I shan’t reveal how she revealed) the situation is saved by Jack’s climbing of a beanstalk, who comments to his sidekick that in the NCD things seem to come together, that apparently disparate elements of the case seem to fit at the end, making a satisfactory narrative end. But earlier, when he swaps a painting of a cow (geddit?) for some strange looking beans…, and he feels an urge to climb the beanstalk growing in his mother’s garden, he doesn’t understand the urge and resists it – until the dénouement, where the ascent is necessary to defeat the monster. So the inconsistencies of Fforde’s conceit don’t work, but naturally this doesn’t really matter – as the blurb says, the books works in its own right as a good thriller / detective story; you’ve just also got the fun of the fairy-tale world.
But that’s only part of the, er, story, as Fforde folds in another, related but actually ontologically distinct, conceit, that of the Guild of Detectives – an elite group of fictional detectives, each with their “OS” – Official Sidekick – continuing in Morse (“Moose”) and Lewis the Holmes/Watson structure. Guild members operate in the “real” – i.e. non-fairy-tale – world, as in actual detective fiction. What Fforde does, though, is throw in a post-modern ball-of-hot-and-angry-cats, by having these detectives have more than half an eye on the literary qualities of the cases, or at least of the case write-ups… For the great man (all men, apart from “Miss Maple”) times his interviews, his visits, to help his OS create the best possible fictional version of the case, as its publication in the great detective magazines is as important to the reputation of Reading Police as actually getting criminals arrested.