Fforde's whimsical fifth novel, his first not to feature literary detective Thursday Next, is consistently witty, but its conceit—putting a criminal spin on nursery rhymes—wears a bit thin. Det. Jack Spratt, the dedicated but underappreciated investigator in the Reading, England, Nursery Crimes Division, is depressed because the court finds the three little pigs "not guilty of all charges relating to the first-degree murder of Mr. Wolff." Working with an ambitious young detective, Mary Mary ("Quite Contrary"), Spratt later takes on the case of "fall guy" Humpty Dumpty. Fforde crafts a police procedural out of this bizarre alternative universe that prizes, as The Eyre Affair does, literacy (detectives, for example, garner recognition less for solving crimes than by writing articles about cases for the likes of Amazing Crime Stories or Sleuth Illustrated). While it can be charming to encounter Mrs. Hubbard or Tom Thomm or to hear Spratt bemoan "illegal straw-into-gold dens" in this unusual context, the novel's broad satire overshadows elements like plot, conflict and characterization. The result is unusually clever but not compelling in the least.
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Crime lies at the heart of the most innocent-seeming nursery stories: con games (The Emperor's New Clothes), counterfeiting (rumpelstiltskin), domestic violence (Punch and Judy), destruction of property and vigilantism (The Three Little Pigs). Fforde, who in his terrific Tuesday Next books (Something Rotten, 2004) enjoys deconstructing literature (Next is a cop charged with keeping the classics from falling into chaos), here launches a new detective series, set in Reading, England's no-respect Nursery Crime Division (their clues tend to come in threes). Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and Detective Sergeant Mary Mary are summoned to a trash-strewn and albumen-spattered yard where, at the foot of a wall, lie the mortal remains of one Mr. Dumpty. The British have a rich tradition of nonsense and whimsy, and Fforde is a worthy standard-bearer. But, as with puns, people are fans of silliness or they aren't, and as this book makes evident, literary in-jokes are more fun when the source material is more sophisticated. But Fforde is gaining fans, and even readers who start out groaning may find themselves grinning. Keir Graff
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.