I just sat down to write a review of the utterly fantastic Jasper Fforde novel, “Shades of Grey.” As usual when I review something by an author I’ve covered before, I skim my past reviews of said author, just to make sure I’m not re-covering the same ground. Though this is the fourth of the man’s novels I’ve read, I was pretty stunned to find that the *only* review on the site was this one for “The Fourth Bear”
I was sure that I’d reviewed “The Big Over Easy” as well, but a quick search showed, that, no, it was yet another of my ether-based hallucinations. Disconcerted, I began to wonder how many other recently-read books had I misremembered reviewing? “And Another Thing,” the Hitchiker’s Guide book by Eoin Colfer? No. Damn. “Gadget Man” by Ron Goulart? No. Double Damn. “The Eyre Affair,” also by Jasper Fforde? No? Triple damn!
There seems to be a pattern here: Humorous novels tend to slide off my plate without noticing ‘em. I think about them long after I’m done reading them, but then I never seem to get around to doing anything about ‘em. Frustrating. I mean, the amount of mental effort I go through digesting them, you’d think I could *at* least get some use out of it by boring, you, gentle reader.
Anyway, catching up on the old backlog:
PLAY BY PLAY
Humpty Dumpty is found dead! Police investigate. The killer is surprising.
No, really, that’s the plot. It really is about Humpty Dumpty being dead, honest and for true. Yes, yes, I know how that sounds, I really do, but the fact is that this is a good book, and frequently hilarious.
Jack Spratt is a British cop in the British town (Redding) where the egg was fund dead, and he investigates. He’s attached to the “Nursery Crimes” division of the police force, the section that handles problems with fictional characters from very old children’s stories, and things arising from ‘em. As goofy as that sounds, it’s a fun ride. The police are, as is standard for these things, oddly unconcerned about the death, but Jack is convinced it’s foul play. He and his new assistant, Mary Mary, follow a tenuous chain of clues and circumstances.
Things seem curious - why is it no one really commented on the fact that the poor egg’s wife had recently committed suicide? Is the death of Wee Willie Winkie - killed with an axe a few days after he admitted witnessing Dumpty’s own death - related? Is someone blackmailing the killer? What’s up with the 28-foot hair found in Dumpty’s bedroom? Could Rapunzel have been having an affair with him? All of this proves to be tied to an old cold case that is only reluctantly re-opened. You know how these things go.
Of course given their mandate and jurisdiction, no one takes the Nursery Crimes division seriously, and Jack - owing to a series of giant killings (Well, one was just a very tall man) - is seen to be long past his prime as a cop. The department is so short-budgeted they’re forced to use an alien on the staff.
Interspersed with this, we also follow Jack around his homelife. His first wife died, obviously. He’s remarried, and to make ends meet he’s rented his spare room to the titan Prometheus, who’s escaped from hell and has been given political amnesty in the UK since torture is against international law, and the Olympians have made it very clear they intend to chain him right back to that rock, should they get their hands on him. Jack’s daughter is engaged to the Titan. Jack’s mom has bought some magic beans. The terrifying link between murder and podiatry is revealed.
It all ends happily, and logically enough, if not actually “Happily ever after,” and, yes, I know how this all sounds, but honestly people: It’s a good book. Way, way, better than I was expecting, and it’s inspired me to pick up three of his other novels (All good, one great) and I’m eagerly looking forward to reading more.
As with most of Fforde’s books (Excepting the “Grey”) series, it’s set in an alternate world in which the line between reality and literary fiction is increasingly notional. Since I read these books out of sequence, that premise befuddled me as well, but if you just squint and accept it in a “Roger Rabbit” kind of way, it’s all internally consistent and works really well. It’s a much more solid detective story than, say, “Bimbos of the Death Sun.”
This alternate world was introduced in his “Thursday Next” series, so I’m going to call it the “Nextiverse” until someone corrects me on it. In fact, the Nextiverse - at least in the Thursday Next novels I’ve read - is probably the most sloppy-assed alternate world I’ve ever enjoyed reading. Now, I’ve read a lot of sloppy-assed alternate histories - arguably they’re really, really hard to do well - and most of them just make no logical sense whatsoever (“Fire on the Mountain” and “A Transatlantic Tunnel Hurrah” being two spectacular low points). The problem seems to be authors think, “Well, it’s an alternate world, so anything goes!” and then they just throw crap at the wall. No, kids, no, things have to progress logically from a point of change. If you want to have the South win the Civil War (Tedious), you have to give a specific reason *why* they won, and then the consequences have to follow logically from that point on. You can’t have the South win in 1861 and somehow have that result in superconductors and manned missions to mars in 1870.
That’s the way it normally runs. Most sloppy alternate histories are just unreadably awful. Fforde somehow sidesteps this, chooses as ridiculous a premise as possible, then just piles more and more ludicrous crap on it. It totally shouldn’t work, and yet, somehow, for him and him alone of all writers: it works. He can get away with it, and I’m not sure why.
The Nursery Crime novels are somewhat removed from this, seeing as they don’t take place in the hot burning center of civilization like the Next novels do. They’re probably a better jumping-on point than his other novels simply because they don’t involve lots of references to the 138-year-long Crimean war and various other seemingly-random divergences from our own world. There are no real references to international politics, and the only crossover character is a cameo by washed up actress Lola VaVoom.
Leaving all that aside, this is a funny book with moments of absolute comedic brilliance, like a subplot in which the mafia is rigging the outcome of plays. They bet on Hamlet to die, pay the actor to not take a dive, and then they make a fortune on a thousand-to-one longshot.
A lot of the humor is actually based on questions of identity. Jack is - no spoiler - a Nursery Rhyme character himself, but (As I said in the earlier review) he’s so far in the closet about his deviant nature that he’s managed to all-but-forget it. Occasionally he suspects. Mary Mary is, herself, obviously fictional, but it’s unclear if she knows, or is suppressing it, or even cares one way or another. There’s an obvious caste system at work here, where the human Nursery Rhyme characters are effectively “Passing” as real live boys and girls. There’s some obvious tension at the thought of a human marrying a “Person of Dubious Reality.” Mostly this comes from society at large looking down on the fictional, but Jack exhibits some of this himself, in that he’s not at all happy about his (Adopted) daughter marrying Prometheus. Of course Jack believes he’s human, so perhaps I shouldn’t read too much cultural commentary into that.
After the laughter is gone, what strikes me as most interesting about the book is simply the existential dilemma the characters find themselves in. Just like the rest of us, they never asked to be here, they never agreed to play by these rules. Just like us, they don’t know where they came from, if anywhere, nor do they know where they’re going. Unlike us, however, the rules they have to play by are very capricious, and they’re sentenced to having to go through the same motions forever and ever, playing out the same old roles. As you can imagine, this leads to a particularly awful recidivism rate for fictional criminals. And even in the case of seemingly-mortals like Jack, there’s the unfortunate preponderance of Giant deaths and/or beanstalks that keep following him around. Questions of free will versus determinism are fairly obviously implied.
One aspect of the book I really liked was that all truly successful detectives in this novel have their adventures published, and have a literary following. There’s a “Publish or perish” mentality here that is pretty cutthroat, since a successful career not only involves solving crimes, but solving them interestingly enough to justify good book sales.
There’s some vague, and almost definitely intentional parallelism between this book and Thomas Harris’ “Red Dragon,” in that we get an appearance by a serial killer whom the protagonist put away years before, at great psychological cost to himself. Said psycho killer escapes and the next book in the series revolves entirely around that, as per “The Silence of the Lambs.”
This book was evidently the first novel Fforde wrote, but he was unable to sell it until after his Thursday Next series caught on. He extensively re-wrote it in the intervening years, so evidently it differs widely from its original draft. I always find that kind of thing interesting.
For whatever reason, Fforde has decided to end this series (Though his Thursday Next books go on and on, as far as I can see). The final novel in this trilogy is “The Last Great Tortoise Race.” I’m looking forward to reading it. In the meantime, I guess I'll review "The Eyre Affair" for you guys, and move on to "Shades of Grey."
WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS NOVEL?
There’s really no reason not to, and a fair number of reasons why one should. Jack is a cop, after all, and he’s continually snagged up in governmental micromanagement, political correctness, and superiors who insist they know best, but don’t. Jack isn’t a rugged individualist, but he is a more-than-passingly-annoyed realist, and high-minded attempts to make his crazy reality conform to a currently-trendy political ethos are no end of annoyance to him. That said, this is a very minor aspect of the book, and since it’s written by a foreigner and set in a foreign land, their concept of “liberal” and “conservative” don’t really conform to ours to begin with.
So: if you don’t care about such things, read it. If you do care about such things, read it and use the tendentious justification I gave you above.