Why did Humpty Dumpty crack?

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THE BIG OVER EASY

By Jasper Fforde:

Hodder & Stoughton, 400pp, 12.99

ONCE UPON A TIME, IN THE oak-panelled study of Vice Chancellor Germaine Goldilocks, at Whimsey University, Grimmsville, Texas, the Modern English course - now under intimate discussion and review - was in its final rigorous phase of consideration. Cue the Vice Chancellor, with Professor Rockabye Baybee, Chair of Rhyme.

Vice Chancellor Goldilocks (irate from her recent efforts to kick a porridge addiction): I read it Baybee, of course. But The Big Over Easy was far from convincing. Postmodern, perhaps, with all those nursery rhyme spoof-characters clogging the foreground, the title evoking Chandler and Hammett. Yes, of course I got the joke!: the tale of the murder of Humpty Dumpty told in somewhat hardboiled prose. But at 400 pages! Frankly, I struggled to get my nose past chapter 14 of the 44 chapters.

Prof Rockabye: Jasper Fforde is now a highly respected author, ma'am. Nay, a cult. In Swindon, England, they are inaugurating a festival this September devoted entirely to his work. He is fted at festivals of literature worldwide. His oeuvre will soon achieve the status of a canon. His name is astral.

VCG: And unpronounceable! Granted, the narrative has a neatly ironic complexity - given the simple world of nursery rhyme on which Fforde constructs his plot - but where are the footnotes, the arcane references, the subtext, the ambiguities? And where - dare I ask - was chapter 13?

Professor R: Ah, chapter 13. It's absence is cryptic, indeed, original. Was this an error at the printers? A superstition? A comic squib - since the book is essentially a detective tale on the trail of Humpty's killer. Perhaps its protagonist, DI Jack Spratt, a rounded and sympathetic hero, I'm sure you'll agree, will conduct his next case in pursuit of the runaway missing chapter. I feel a module coming on.

VCG: There are no rounded characters in the book.

Professor R: Well, Humpty is ovoid, ma'am. And the plot is superbly constructed. As are the sub-plots.

VCG: Superbly constructed, you say! Fill me in while I roll a spliff of Quaker oats.

Professor R: Well, the tale, you'll have noticed, is schematic, thematic and moral, all rolled into one. It applauds the underdog, Jack Spratt, a decent family man with a cop career in the doldrums, heading the ill-fated Nursery Crime Division of the Oxford & Berkshire Constabulary. His continuous, cut-throat rivalry with ruthless DCI Chymes is a moral struggle of Dostoyevskian proportions. Chymes stoops to bullying, lying and bribery, you'll recall, to get his hands on the Humpty Dumpty case, with its hugely prestigious publishing rights.

VCG: Perhaps, though, like me, you felt that Spratt's assistant, Detective Sergeant Mary Mary, had no other function in the book than to heighten the moral issues so blatantly posited. Should she be loyal to Spratt, or betray him to his rival to aid her career? In which case, she'd also have sold her soul.

Professor R: Forgive me. You sound as though you cared, ma'am.

VCG: I almost did. It's so rare in modern popular fiction - pace , of course, the distinguished anthropological oeuvre of Alexander McCall Smith - to encounter the deadly sins so unequivocally routed by honest goodness. Perhaps Jasper Fforde should be on our Philosophy of Literature course? For instance, Baybee ... ponder: Is it better for the reader to laugh or cry, to deduce moral value from entertainment or entertainment from moral vacuousness and abandonment?

Professor R: The former. Fforde is a master entertainer, and a wordsmith of dexterous genius. He tosses in palindromes and anagrams like a tickertape of polysyllabic cleverness. A copy of this book should be free to all purchasers of Scrabble.

VCG: Perhaps we should place it on our Linguistics for the Layperson course, since language, and its usage, are more the book's subject than its murder plot, which is clever, hatching a witty surprise revelation at the denouement.

But I wasn't intrigued by its latent themes of betrayal, integrity, jealousy and spite. Nor by the sub-plots: will the plucky young Jack climb the beanstalk? Will his mother get a fair price for her painting by Stubbs? Will Spratt join the odious Guild of Detectives?

Professor R: In the end the question that really matters is: Do they know they are nursery characters?

VCG: Aren't we all?

• Jasper Fforde will be appearing at the EIBFestival on 15 August.