The Big Over Easy
A Nursery Crime
Jasper Fforde does it again with a dazzling new series starring Inspector Jack Spratt, head of the Nursery Crime Division
Jasper Fforde’s bestselling Thursday Next series has delighted readers of every genre with its literary derring-do and brilliant flights of fancy. In The Big Over Easy, Fforde takes a break from classic literature and tumbles into the seedy underbelly of nursery crime. Meet Inspector Jack Spratt, family man and head of the Nursery Crime Division. He’s investigating the murder of ovoid D-class nursery celebrity Humpty Dumpty, found shattered to death beneath a wall in a shabby area of town. Yes, the big egg is down, and all those brittle pieces sitting in the morgue point to foul play. BACKCOVER: “A wonderfully readable riot . . . [A] cleverly plotted, magically overstuffed yet amazingly digestible book . . . This summer’s perfect beach read for eggheads.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“As if the Marx brothers were let loose in the children’s section of a strange bookstore.”
“Pythonesque . . . Like the Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket books, this one is abundantly playful without being truly geared for children. Anyone who has ever been read a nursery rhyme . . . can appreciate Mr. Fforde’s outlandish joking.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"It was the week following Easter"
If Queen Anne hadn’t suffered so badly from Gout and Dropsy, Reading might never have developed at all. In 1702 the unhealthy Queen Anne, looking for a place to ease her Royal infirmities, chanced upon Bath; and where Royalty goes, so too does society. In consequence, Reading, up until that time a small town on a smaller tributary of the Thames, became a busy staging post on the Bath road, later to become the A4, and ultimately the M4. The town was enriched by the wool trade and later played host to several large firms that were to become household names. By the time Huntley & Palmers biscuits began here in 1822, Simonds brewery was already well established; and when Suttons Seeds began in 1835 and Spongg's footcare in 1853, the town's prosperity was assured.
-excerpt from A History of Reading
It was the week following Easter in Reading, and no one could remember the last sunny day. Gray clouds swept across the sky, borne on a chill wind that cut like a knife. It seemed that spring had forsaken the town. The drab winter weather had clung to the town like a heavy smog, refusing to relinquish the season. Even the early bloomers were in denial. Only the bravest crocuses had graced the municipal park, and the daffodils, usually a welcome splash of color after a winter of grayness, had taken one sniff at the cold, damp air and postponed blooming for another year. A police officer was gazing with mixed emotions at the dreary cityscape from the seventh floor of Reading Central Police Station. She was thirty and attractive, dressed up and dated down, worked hard and felt awkward near anyone she didn't know. Her name was Mary. Mary Mary. And she was from Basingstoke, which is nothing to be ashamed of.
"Mary?" said an officer who was carrying a large potted plant in the manner of someone who thinks it is well outside his job description. "Superintendent Briggs will see you now. How often do you water these things?"
"That one?" replied Mary without emotion. "Never. It’s plastic."
"I’m a policeman," he said unhappily, "not a sodding gardener."
And he walked off, mumbling darkly to himself.
She turned from the window, approached Briggs's closed door and paused. She gathered her thoughts, took a deep breath and stood up straight. Reading wouldn't have been everyone's choice for a transfer, but for Mary, Reading had one thing that no other city possessed: DCI Friedland Chymes. He was a veritable powerhouse of a sleuth whose career was a catalog of inspired police work, and his unparalleled detection skills had filled the newspaper columns for over two decades. Chymes was the reason Mary had joined the police force in the first place. Ever since her father had bought her a subscription to Amazing Crime Stories when she was nine, she'd been hooked. She had thrilled at "The Mystery of the Wrong Nose," been galvanised by "The Poisoned Shoe" and inspired by "The Sign of Three and a Half." Twenty-one years further on, Friedland was still a serious international player in the world of competitive detecting, and Mary had never missed an issue. Chymes was currently ranked by Amazing Crime second in their annual league rating, just behind Oxford's ever-popular Inspector Moose.
"Hmm," murmured Superintendent Briggs, eyeing Mary's job application carefully as she sat uncomfortably on a plastic chair in an office that was empty apart from a desk, two chairs, them- and a trombone lying on a tattered chaise longue.
"Your application is mostly very good, Mary," he said approvingly. "I see you were with Detective Inspector Hebden Flowwe. How did that go?"
It hadn’t gone very well at all, but she didn’t think she’d say so.
"We had a fairly good clear-up rate, sir."
"I’ve no doubt you did. But more important, anything published?"
It was a question that was asked more and more in front of promotion boards and transfer interviews and listed in performance reports. It wasn't enough to be a conscientious and invaluable assistant to one's allotted inspector—you had to be able to write up a readable account for the magazines that the public loved to read. Preferably Amazing Crime Stories, but, failing that, Sleuth Illustrated.
"Only one story in print, sir. But I was the youngest officer at Basingstoke to make detective sergeant and have two commendations for brav-"
"The thing is," interrupted Briggs, "is that the Oxford & Berkshire Police prides itself on producing some of the most readable detectives in the country." He walked over to the window and looked out at the rain striking the glass. "Modern policing isn't just about catching criminals, Mary. It’s about good copy and ensuring that cases can be made into top-notch documentaries on the telly. Public approval is the all-important currency these days, and police budgets ebb and flow on the back of circulation and viewing figures."
"DS Flotsam's work penning Friedland Chymes's adventures is the benchmark by which you should try to aspire, Mary. Selling the movie rights to Friedland Chymes-the Smell of Fear was a glory moment for everyone at Reading Central, and rightly so. Just one published work, you say? With Flowwe?"
"Yes, sir. A two-parter in Amazing Crime. Jan-Feb 1999 and adapted for TV."
He nodded his approval.
"Well, that’s impressive. Prime-time dramatization?"
"No, sir. Documentary on MoleCable-62."
His face fell. Clearly, at Reading they expected better things. Briggs sat down and looked at her record again.
"Now, it says here one reprimand: You struck Detective Inspector Flowwe with an onyx ashtray. Why was that?"
"The table lamp was too heavy," she replied, truthfully enough, "and if I’d used a chair, it might have killed him."
"Which is illegal, of course" added Briggs, glad for an opportunity to show off his legal knowledge. "What happened? Personal entanglements?"
"Equal blame on both sides, sir," she replied, thinking it would be better to be impartial over the whole affair. "I was foolish. He was emotionally ... dishonest."
Briggs closed the file.
"Well, I don’t blame you. Hebden was always a bit of a bounder. He pinged my partner's bra strap at an office party once, you know. She wasn't wearing it at the time," he added after a moment's reflection, "but the intention was clear."
"That sounds like DI Flowwe," replied Mary.
Briggs drummed his fingers on the desk for a moment.
"Do you want to hear me play the trombone?"
"Might it be prejudicial to my career if I were to refuse?"
"It’s a distinct possibility."
"Then I’d be delighted."
So Briggs walked over to the chaise longue, picked up the trombone, worked the slide a couple of times and blew a few notes, much to the annoyance of whoever had the office next door, who started to thump angrily on the wall.
"Drug squad," explained Briggs unhappily, putting the instrument down, "complete heathens. Never appreciate a good tune."
"I was wondering," said Mary before he had a chance to start playing again. "This detective sergeant's job I'm applying for. Who is it with?"
He looked at his watch.
"An excellent question. In ten minutes we're holding a press conference. I've a detective in urgent need of a new sergeant, and I think you'll fit the bill perfectly. Shall we?"
The pressroom was five floors below, and an expectant journalistic hubbub greeted their ears while they were still walking down the corridor. They stepped inside and stood as unobtrusively as possible at the back of the large and airy room. Mary could see from the "Oxford & Berkshire Police"-bedecked podium and high turnout that press conferences here were taken with a great deal more seriousness than she had known, which probably reflected this city's preeminence over Basingstoke when it came to serious crime. It wasn't that Reading had any more murders than Basingstoke-it just had better ones. Reading and the Thames Valley area was more of a "fairy cakes laced with strychnine" or "strangulation with a silk handkerchief" sort of place, where there were always bags of interesting suspects, convoluted motives and seemingly insignificant clues hidden in an inquiry of incalculable complexity yet solved within a week or two. By contrast, murders in Basingstoke were strictly blunt instruments, drunkenly wielded, solved within the hour-or not at all. Mary had worked on six murder investigations and, to her great disappointment, hadn’t once discovered one of those wonderful clues that seem to have little significance but later, in an epiphanic moment, turn the case on its head and throw the guilty light on someone previously eliminated from the inquiries.
She didn’t have time how to muse upon the imaginative shortcoming of Basingstoke's criminal fraternity any longer, as there was a sudden hushing of the pressmen, a burst of spontaneous applause, and a handsome man in his mid-fifties strode dramatically from a side door.
"Goodness!" said Mary. "That’s"
"Yup," said Briggs, with the pride of a father who has just seen his son win everything at sports day. "Detective Inspector Friedland Chymes."
Friedland Chymes! In person. There was a hush as the famous detective stepped up to the podium. The assembled two dozen newspapermen readied themselves, pens poised, for his statement.
Thank you for attending, he began, sweeping back his blond hair and gazing around the room with his lively blue eyes, causing flutters when they lingered ever so slightly with the women present in the room, Mary included. She found herself almost automatically attracted to him. He was strong, handsome, intelligent, fearless-the most alpha of alpha males. Working with him would be an honor.
"It was the small traces of pastry around the gunshot wound on Colonel Peabody's body that turned the case for me," began the great detective, his sonorous tones filling the air like music, "minute quantities of shortcrust whose butter/flour ratio I found to be identical to a medium-size Bowyer's pork pie. The assailant had fired his weapon through the tasty snack to muffle the sound of the shot. The report heard later was a firecracker set off by a time fuse, thus giving an alibi to the assailant, who I can reveal to you now was."
The whole room leaned forward in expectation. Chymes, his only apparent vanity a certain showmanship, paused for dramatic effect before announcing the killer.
"Miss Celia Mangersen, the victim’s niece and, unbeknownst to us all, the sole beneficiary of the missing will, which I found hidden-as expected-within a hollowed-out statuette of Sir Walter Scott. Yes, Mr. Hatchett, you have a question?"
Josh Hatchett of The Toad newspaper had raised his hand in the front row.
"What was the significance of the traces of custard found on the Colonel's sock suspender?"
Friedland raised a finger in the air.
"An excellent question, Mr. Hatchett, and one that pushed my deducting powers to the limit. Bear with me if you will while we go through the final moments of Colonel Peabody's life. Mortally wounded and with only seconds to live, he had somehow to leave a clue to his assailant's identity. A note? Of course not-the killer would find and destroy it. Guessing correctly that a murder of this magnitude would be placed in my hands, he decided to leave behind a clue that only I could solve. Knowing the Colonel's penchant for anagrams, it was but a swift move to deduct his reasoning. The sock suspender was made in France. "Custard" in French is crème anglaise-and an anagram of this is "Celia Mangerse," which not only correctly identified the killer but also told me the Colonel died before he was able to finish the anagram."
There was more applause, and he quietened everyone down before continuing.
"But since anagram-related clues are now inadmissible as evidence, we sent the pork pie off for DNA analysis and managed to pinpoint the pie shop where it was purchased. Guessing that Miss Mangersen might have an affinity for the pies, we staked out the shop in question, and yesterday evening Miss Mangersen was taken into custody, whereupon she confessed to me in a tearful scene that served as a dramatic closure to the case. My loyal, chirpy, cockney assistant and biographer DS Flotsam will of course be writing a full report for Amazing Crime Stories in due course, after the formality of a trial. Ladies and gentlemen: The case is closed!"
The assembled journalists rose as one and burst into spontaneous applause. Chymes dismissed the adulation with a modest wave of the hand and excused himself, muttering something about needing to open a hospital for orphaned sick children.
"He's amazing!" breathed Mary, somehow convincing herself-as had all the other women present-that Chymes had winked at her across the crowded room.
"I agree," replied Briggs, standing aside as the newsmen filed out, eager to get the stories into the late editions. "Don’t you love that 'the case is closed!' stuff? I wish I had a catchphrase. He’s an asset not only to us here at Reading but also to the nation-there aren't many countries that haven't requested his thoughts on some intractable and ludicrously complex inquiry.
"He's remarkable," agreed Mary.
"Indeed," went on Briggs, seemingly swept up in a paroxysm of hagiographic hero worship. "He's also a hilarious raconteur, has a golf handicap of two, was twice world aerobatic champion and plays the clarinet as well as Artie Shaw. Speaks eight languages, too, and is often consulted by the Jellyman himself on important matters of state."
"I’m going to enjoy working with him, I can see," replied Mary happily. "When do I start?"
"Chymes?" echoed Briggs with a faint yet unmistakably patronizing laugh. "Goodness gracious no! You’re not working with Chymes!"
"Who then?" asked Mary, attempting to hide her disappointment, and failing.
Mary followed Briggs’s outstretched finger to an untidy figure who had taken his turn at the podium. He was in his mid-forties, had graying hair and one eye marginally higher than the other, giving him the lopsided look of someone deep in thought. If he was deep in thought, considered Mary, it was clearly about something more important than his personal appearance. His suit could have done with a good pressing, his hair styled any way but the way he had it. He might have shaved a little less hurriedly and made more of an attempt to exude some-any-confidence . He fumbled with his papers as he stared resignedly after the rapidly vanishing press corps.
"I see," said Mary, sounding a great deal colder than she had intended. "And who’s he?"
Briggs patted her arm in a fatherly manner. He could sense her disappointment, but it wasn’t up to him. Chymes picked his own people.
"That’s DI Jack Spratt, of the Nursery Crime Division. The NCD. You’ll be on his team. Or at least you and a few others will be the team. It's one of our smallest departments." He thought for a moment and then added, "Actually, it is our smallest department-if you don't count the night shift in the canteen."
"And his Amazing Crime Stories rating? What about that?"
"He’s not rated," replied Briggs, trying to make it sound all matter-of-fact and not the embarrassment that it was. "In fact, I don't think he's even in the Guild."
Mary stared at the shabby figure and felt her heart fall. All of a sudden DI Flowwe didn’t seem quite so bad after all.
Jack Spratt looked around the room. Most of the newsmen had by now left, and aside from Briggs and a woman Spratt didn't recognize at the door, there were only two journalists still in the room. The first was a large man named Archibald Fatquack, who was the editor of the Reading weekly gossip sheet The Gadfly. The second was a junior newshound from the Reading Daily Eyestrain, who appeared to be asleep, drunk, dead or a mixture of all three.
"Thank you all for attending this press conference," announced Jack in a somber tone to the as good-as-empty room, "I'll try not to keep you any longer than is necessary. This afternoon the Reading Central Criminal Court found the three pigs not guilty of all charges relating to the first-degree murder of Mr. Wolff."
He sighed. If he was intending it to be a dramatic statement, it wasn't, and it didn't help that no one significant was there to witness it. He could still hear the excited yet increasingly distant chatter of the newsmen as they filed down the corridor, but it was soon drowned out by Friedland’s 1932 Delage D8 Super- Sport, which started up with a throaty roar in the car park. Jack waited until he had gone, then continued on gamely, the extreme lack of interest not outwardly affecting his demeanor. After nearly twenty years, he was kind of used to it.
"Since the death by scalding of Mr. Wolff following his ill- fated climb down Little Pig C's chimney, we at the Nursery Crime Division have been following inquiries that this was not an act of self-defense but a violent and premeditated murder by three individuals who, far from being the innocent victims of wolf-porcine crime, actually sought confrontation and then acted quite beyond what might be described as reasonable self-defense.”
Jack paused for breath. If he had hoped his misgivings over the outcome of the trial would be splashed all over the paper, he was mistaken. Page sixteen of The Gadfly was about the sum total of this particular story, sandwiched ignominiously between a three-for-two Hemorrelief advert and the Very Reverend Conrad Poo’s weekly dental-hygiene column.
"Mr. Spratt," began Archibald, slowly bringing himself up to speed like a chilled gecko. "Is it true that Mr. Wolff once belonged to the Lupine Brotherhood, a secret society dedicated to traditional wolfish pursuits such as the outlawed Midnight Howling?"
"Yes, I understand that to be the case," replied Jack, "but that was over fifteen years ago. We do not deny that he has been investigated over various charges of criminal damage arising from the destruction of two dwellings built by the younger pigs, nor that Mr. Wolff threatened "to eat them all up." But we saw this as an empty threat-we produced witnesses who swore that Mr. Wolff was a vegetarian of many years' standing."
"So what was your basis for a murder prosecution again?" asked Archie, scratching his head.
"We believed," replied Jack in exasperation, as he had made the same point in the same room to the same two disinterested journalists many times before, "that boiling Mr. Wolff alive was quite outside the realm of 'reasonable force' and that the fact that the large pan of water would have taken at least six hours to reach boiling point strongly indicated premeditation."
Archibald said nothing, and Jack, eager to go home, wrapped up his report.
"Despite the not-guilty verdicts, we at the NCD feel we have put up a robust case and were fully justified in our actions. To this end we will not be looking to reexamine the case or interview anyone else in connection with Mr. Wolff’s death."
Jack sighed and gazed down. He looked and felt drained.
"Personally," said Briggs in an aside, "I didn’t think the jury would go for it. The problem is that small pigs elicit a strong sympathetic reaction and large wolves don’t. There was a good case for self-defense, too—Mr. Wolff was trespassing when he climbed down the chimney. It really all hinged on whether you believed that the pigs were boiling up a huge tureen of water to do their washing. And the jury did. In only eight minutes. Do you want me to introduce you?"
"I’d prefer tomorrow, once I am officially on duty, "said Mary quickly, thinking she might have to go outside and scream or something.
Briggs picked up on her reticence.
"Don’t underestimate the Nursery Crime Division, Mary. Spratt does some good work. Not high-profile, you understand, but important. His work on the Bluebeard serial wife killings case was mostly good solid police work."
"That was Spratt?" asked Mary, something vaguely stirring in her memory. It hadn’t been in Amazing Crime, of course, just one of those "also-ran" stories you usually find dwelling in the skim-read part of the dailies, along with city prices, dog horoscopes and "true-life" photo stories. It had been under the subheading "Colorfully hirsute gentleman kills nine wives; hidden room contained gruesome secret."
"That’s him. Jack was onto Bluebeard and was well ahead of events."
"If nine wives died, he couldn’t have been that good."
"I said it was mostly good police work. More notably, he arrested Rumplestiltskin over that 'spinning straw into gold' scam and was part of the team that captured the violently dangerous psychopath the Gingerbreadman. You might have heard about Jack in connection with some giant killing, too."
Something stirred in Mary’s memory again, and she raised an eyebrow. Police officers weren’t meant to kill people if they could help it—and giants were no exception.
"Don’t worry," said Briggs, "it was self-defense. Mostly."
"The last one he ran over in a car."
"The last one?" repeated Mary incredulously, "How many have there been?"
"Four. But don’t mention it; he’s a bit sensitive over the issue."
Mary’s heart, which had already fallen fairly far, fell farther.
"Well, that’s all I have to say," said Jack to the sparsely populated room. "Are there any more questions?"
Archibald Fatquack stirred, scribbled in his pad but said nothing. The reporter from the Reading Daily Eyestrain had moved slowly forward during Jack's report, until his head was resting on the seat back in front. He began to snore.
"Good. Well, thank you very much for your time. Don't all rush to get out. You might wake Jim over there."
"I wasn’t asleep," said Jim, eyes tightly closed. "I heard every word."
"Even the bit about the bears escaping into the Oracle Center and eating a balloon seller?"
"Of course," he murmured, beginning to snore again.
Jack picked up his notes and disappeared through a side door.
"Are there usually this few people for his press conferences?" asked Mary, horrified at the prospect of the career black hole into which she was about to descend like a suicidal rabbit.
"Good Lord, no," replied Briggs in a shocked tone. "Often he has no press at all."
He looked at his watch. "Goodness, is that the time? Check in with me first thing tomorrow, and I'll introduce you to Jack. You'll like him. Not exactly charismatic, but diligent and generally correct in most some of his assumptions."
"Sir, I was wondering—"
Briggs stopped her midsentence, divining precisely what she was about to say. The reason was simple: All the detective sergeants he had ever allocated to Jack said the same thing.
"Look upon it as a baptism of fire. The NCD is good training."
Briggs had to think for a moment. "Unconventional policing. Your time won’t be wasted. Oh, and one other thing."
"Welcome to Reading."
"A wonderfully readable riot . . . [A] cleverly plotted, magically overstuffed yet amazingly digestible book . . . This summer's perfect beach read for eggheads." —The Wall Street Journal
"As if the Marx brothers were let loose in the children's section of a strange bookstore." —USA Today
"Pythonesque . . . Like the Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket books, this one is abundantly playful without being truly geared for children. Anyone who has ever been read a nursery rhyme . . . can appreciate Mr. Fforde's outlandish joking." —Janet Maslin, The New York Times
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