Instead of literary detective Thursday Next careering with tongue-in-cheek puns through the back-stories of famous Victorian novels and poems in search of the arch-villain Acheron Hades, we have DI Jack Spratt, of the Nursery Crimes Division of the Oxford and Berkshire Police Force. He seeks out the truth of such puzzling conundrums as the death of Cock Robin and the fatal scalding of Mr Wolff.
Spratt is faced with the mysterious death "from injuries consistent with falling off a wall" of Humperdinck Aloysius Stuyvesant Dumpty. The villains are mafia mobster Giorgio Porgia and DI Friedland Chymes, a Sherlock Holmes figure who excels at fantastic re-interpretations of evidence. A deus ex machina is provided in Prometheus, the Spratts' lodger. Since most of us can still chant the nursery rhymes which are the seminal texts in this witty thriller, and have more than a nodding acquaintance with Greek myths and crime fiction, it is easy to enjoy Fforde's references to Miss Maple, Inspec- tor Dogleash and the raunchy night-lives of the gods.
Fforde's books are more than an ingenious idea. They are written with buoyant zest and are tautly plotted. They have empathetic heroes and heroines who nearly make terrible mistakes and suitably dastardly villains who do. They also have more twists and turns than Christie, and are embellished with the rich detail of a Dickens or Pratchett. As Humpty Dumpty's life-story is revealed, the mystery becomes curiouser and curiouser, and the compulsion to find out what is going on increases. A real summertime treat.
Christina Hardyment's 'Malory' is published by HarperCollins