Mystery

A repost of reviews for the “mystery” theme that inaugurated The Bibliophagic Society book club.

The Big Over Easy, by Jasper Fforde: I chose to read this book first because it was the only title to appear on two different lists. I’d read the first two books of the Thursday Next series before and found them entertaining, but I did find myself fed up with the character of Thursday Next herself as well as Fforde’s occasional lapses into awkward prose. Reading The Big Over Easy though convinced me that I should give Fforde another chance and finish reading his other books. I think Fforde struck the perfect balance between being entertaining and unexpectedly serious (one of my main objections to Next was her tendency to grow self-pitying) in The Big Over Easy: Jack Spratt has problems, to be sure, but he takes them for the most part with a laidback good humor that makes him an easy character to like.

But I should probably first introduce the premise of the book first. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Jasper Fforde, he writes what are essentially mystery novels set in an alternate Britain. I don’t think the Thursday Next series and the Nursery Crimes series (of which The Fourth Bear is the first novel) belong to exactly the same universe (although The Eyre Affair is mentioned in the book), but they share many similarities: both protagonists are detectives investigating “literary crimes”. In the Thursday Next universe, where books still dominate most people’s everyday lives, reading is much more than a passive activity: you can enter books and change the storyline or steal characters. Fforde takes this idea one step further for the Nursery Crimes series: here, characters from children’s nursery rhymes and fairy tales actually exist, although they are unaware of being “characters”. Hence, Jack Spratt (yes, from this rhyme, as well as “Jack and the Beanstalk”), Detective Inspector and head of the Nursery Crime Division with the Reading police, is assigned to investigate the death of Humpty Dumpty with his new partner, Mary Mary (who is not so quite contrary as I would have expected). The Nursery Crime Division is considered a laughingstock unfortunately, and Jack is snubbed and ignored by his former partner, Friedland Chymes, who is the star of the police department.

It’s particularly appropriate to read this book for this theme because the Jack Spratt universe is set in a world where detectives are adored as celebrities, and solving a case is as much a matter of creating publishable cases (serialized in Amazing Crime Stories and often turned into TV dramas) as they are about finding the culprit. Friedland Chymes is the worst example, and in his pompous, self-congratulatory accounts of how he solved his latest case, Fforde parodies the mystery genre at its most contrived:

“It was the small traces of pastry around the gunshot wound on Colonel Peabody’s corpse that turned the case for me,” began the great detective, his sonorous tones filling hte air like music, “minute quantities of shortcrust whose butter/flour ratio I found to be identical to that of 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…”

Every detective, who is registered with the Guild of Detectives, also has an Official Sidekick to record his adventures, à la the grand tradition of Watson and Hastings. Detectives are expected to drive fancy cars, be confirmed bachelors (preferably with a dark and angst-ridden past), and have interesting character quirks, all the better to amuse the audience. The celebrity detective trend seems to have begun with Holmes himself, whose legacy was continued by Hercule Porridge, Miss Maple, Lord Peter Flimsey and Father Broom (I wonder why only Holmes got to keep his name?), as well as of course, Friedland Chymes, who not surprisingly turns out to be a total fraud.

The mystery itself is well-constructed, with several suspects wanting to kill Humpty Dumpty and (spoiler ahead) each one of them turning out to have made a real attempt, although all but one were unsuccessful. The process of investigation however isn’t exactly a standard for deduction: Jack Spratt and Mary Mary are pretty much swept along from obvious clue to obvious clue until they finally find the real culprit. What’s entertaining however are all the nursery rhyme and fairy tale references that one encounters along the way (I was almost tempted to start writing down all the ones I recognized), and the amusing twists that Fforde puts on each one. Humpty Dumpty for example was a philanthropist and notorious playboy (playegg?), the Gingerbread Man was a insane psychopath, and Giorgio Porgia (better known as Georgie Porgie) is the head of the mafia. Fforde also makes sure to touch on a lot of film noir conventions, from the angry, jilted wife to the washed-up film star. And let’s not forget the crazy architecture of Spongg Castle (a parody on crumbling Gothic mansions?), the mad scientist Dr. Quatt, and Prometheus (yes, the actual Greek Titan) meeting Jack Spratt’s daughter Pandora.

Fforde is very inventive and funny, and despite his seemingly endless stream of clever puns and asides and references, he never loses track of the central story either, and we get a nice, tidy ending with all plot points resolved (not such an easy task given how many plot points there are!). Which, if you think about it, is what we’ve come to expect from a mystery novel.

Cards on the Table, by Agatha Christie: I think I’ve only read one Poirot mystery before, since whenever I looked for an Agatha Christie novel, I always looked for her Miss Marple mysteries first. I wasn’t very familiar with the character himself—I barely remembered his trademark reference to “the little grey cells”—and I hadn’t realized that his method of choice was constructing a psychological profile of the suspects to decide who would be the most likely culprit. It’s an interesting method!—but limited in approach. It’s particularly well-suited though for drawing-room murders, where there are a finite number of suspects and the means of murder is known.

Naturally, Cards on the Table features such a murder: the victim is Mr. Shaitana who invites four sleuths (a Scotland Yard inspector, a mystery writer, a secret service agent, and a private detective—namely Poirot) and four murderers whom he believes to have gotten away with their crimes. Shaitana is found dead, presumably killed while all eight guests were playing bridge, and the four sleuths combine forces to solve the crimes. Everyone has their own approach and personality of course: Mrs. Oliver, the novelist, relies on her “woman’s intuition” and jumps to unsupported conclusions based on what she thinks will make a good story; Superintendent Battle, the Scotland Yard inspector, investigates the suspects patiently and thoroughly, according to the book; and Colonel Race, who actually doesn’t feature much in the novel, pops in to share information via his contacts about one of the suspects. Poirot is the most “unorthodox” and asks the suspects about their bridge game and what they remembered from the room, rather than anything directly related to the crime itself. I was rather pleasantly surprised to find that Battle got his fair share of respect—ever since the much-abused Lestrade, it seems that the Scotland Yard don’t usually get much respect in detective fiction—and his “hard work over genius” approach wasn’t considered futile, even if it was Poirot who solved the crime.

As for the four suspects, they all proved to be rather likeable, even Anne Meredith, although I found her well-suppressed envy and vindictiveness to be unnerving. Mrs. Lorrimer was my favorite though, with her passion for bridge and exact personality, and I have to admit that I was left a little curious about the murder she got away with, since only her crime remains incompletely solved. (All of the four suspects have murdered before, so the four detectives essentially end up investigating five crimes instead of just one.) Major Despard remains the only one that escapes serious suspicion, although I would have thought him the most likely suspect myself, if I hadn’t remembered that a similar sort of character in And Then There Were None ended up being innocent. (Guessing the right culprit seems to usually be a matter of how well you can read the author’s mind.) I was a little disappointed with the solution—I’m not sure if it’s the one I necessarily anticipated or not, so I can’t make any conclusion about my self-esteem—because it turned out to be a lot simpler than I expected. That’s the problem with the drawing-room murder: the method of murder is fairly straightforward. I did rather like Poirot himself though and plan to read more in the future.