Humpty's a hard case to crack

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The Big Over Easy

Jasper Fforde

Hodder and Stoughton, 12.99

JASPER Fforde pulls an ink stamp from his canvas bag and on my spanking new copy of his latest novel, The Big Over Easy, emblazons the words 'Nursery Crime Division, EVIDENCE, Reading Police Department'. Welcome to Fforde's parallel universe where Humpty Dumpty turns out to be a womanising B-list celebrity with plenty of enemies, the Gingerbread Man a serial killer, and Jack Spratt a middle-aged detective looking for his big break.

Fforde made his name as an author with a series about a literary detective called Thursday Next who lives in an alternative Swindon where the Crimean War is still being fought and dodos have been cloned to bring them back from extinction.

But back in 1993 his first manuscript couldn't find a publisher. After working as a focus puller on feature films including Goldeneye, and then as a camera man for 14 years, Fforde had written his "Nursery Crime" book in his spare time and was sure publishers would appreciate his sharp satirical wit and gentle derision of all things English.

"I thought it was terrific, as you always do when you're an author," Fforde says over breakfast at a London hotel. "You take it to these publishers and say: 'Here you are, you can really sell this!' And they say: 'No, take it away.'" Fforde says he was puzzled, even hurt, by the response but went home, cooked up the first Thursday Next book The Eyre Affair and then sold it to Hodder & Stoughton in 1999.

Since then, Fforde has become not so much a best-selling author as a cultural phenomenon. His books have spawned an active internet forum, an annual croquet match in honour of Thursday Next's world, in which the genteel game is played instead of cricket, and in September there will be a Fforde Festival in the real Swindon. "It'll be a weekend of Thursday Next-related hi-jinks and tomfoolery," he says.

Fforde is also proud that, of his fans who have met over the internet forum to chat about his work, one couple have married and another two are "fairly close to it".

Fforde believes that his fans are brought together by their common love of the absurd and an off-kilter sense of humour. "My fans are wonderfully loyal, very enthusiastic and the really nice thing is that they share a quirky sense of humour," he says. When he talks to audiences about his work, he often finds that his readers start chatting to each other about their favourite bits in his novels. "It's a strange and wonderful thing to bring people together," he says. Dressed in hiking boots and shorts, Fforde seems relentlessly cheerful and this warmth comes across in his writing. He might be satirising English institutions (cricket, the Austin Morris, rules about drinking tea) but he equally reveals a deep affection for them.

AS A WRITER, FFORDE claims he is simply plugging into people's collective memories, drawing on the detritus of 1970s television programmes, popular films, theatre shows, books and songs to conjure up certain images for his readers.

"If you mention Mrs Tiggywinkle or The Little Prince - if someone says 'Draw me a sheep, please' - I know exactly where they're coming from," he says. "So I throw in that little flag and it pops up in your memory."

Fforde believes that since we've all ingested the classics, whether they be Wuthering Heights or Jack and the Beanstalk, he can use them in a subtly subversive form. With his Nursery Crime series, of which The Big Over Easy is the first volume, he has created another alternative universe with its own coherent rules and logic.

He was convinced that his readers would be interested in finding out what happened to Humpty Dumpty. "Jack Spratt knows that he's a nursery rhyme character but these are real people living real lives. The fact that Humpty's fallen off a wall and broken as predicted in the nursery rhyme is about the only thing that it's connected with," he says. "I thought, if you were a big egg and you'd fallen off a wall, what kind of person would you be? And I really tried to make the fantastic real."

here is also a contemporary satire running through his novels, and in The Big Over Easy, the detectives at the Reading Police Department are measured not by the number of bad guys they catch but by the number of documentary programmes their investigations inspire.

When Humpty Stuveysant Van Dumpty III takes a tumble, Jack Spratt is still smarting from his failure to convict the Three Pigs for murdering Mr Wolff, and his partner Mary Mary has nothing on her resume but an appearance on MoleCable-62.

The police in this imagined Reading are under such pressure that they resort to making up entire investigations, just to get the media's attention. "This novel is more of a take on how the media reacts to the public and the public reacts to the media, and how the police are caught up in it, which isn't true in real life."

But Fforde says he has a horror of preaching to his readers and leaves them to make up their own minds about what's encoded in his books. "Messages that you want to get across to the public, they do go in and out of fashion," he says. "I look at things in broad brushstrokes so that next time you read a newspaper, you don't say, 'Oh God, what's happening?', because whatever it is, it's probably been exaggerated."

IT'S CURIOUS THAT FOR a writer who loves intricate plots and who so deftly lobs puns at his readers which are often embedded in names, Fforde admits that he found school a trial and grew up in the Wye Valley feeling that he was the thick one in his family. All his three siblings have PhDs and his father was an economist who worked for the Bank of England. It was a tough act to follow. "I always thought the measure of one's intelligence was what kind of degree you got and which school you went to," he says. "I thought writing was an intellectual pursuit and something that only clever people did."

In his late 20s, he decided to give it a go, and his short stories, over the years, grew longer and longer.

Now Fforde is working on his next novel, which involves three bears and a golden-haired girl named Goldilocks.

"I've started asking questions about them," he says conspiratorially. "Like, why do Mummy Bear and Daddy Bear sleep in separate beds? There's obviously something going on there." Jack Spratt, with his faithful sidekick Sgt Mary Mary, will no doubt be on the case.

Jasper Fforde will be at Ottakar's, Glasgow, on Tuesday at 6.30pm; and at Waterstone's, Edinburgh West End, on Wednesday at 6pm