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Literature / Nursery Crime

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The Big Over Easy, the first novel in the series.

Nursery Crime is a series of humorous fantasy / detective novels written by meta-fiction maverick Jasper Fforde. They are a loose spin-off of the same author's Thursday Next series: the world it's set in existed within an unpublishable Police Procedural novel that Thursday occupied in The Well of Lost Plots, wherein the characters worried they would be deleted. It was turned into a refuge for characters from Oral Tradition lacking a proper ink-and-paper home to call their own, and thus Nursery Crime was born.

The books themselves deal with the strange adventures of Police Detective Jack Spratt and his partner Sergeant Mary Mary, who live in an otherworldly version of Reading, England where characters from nursery rhymes are not only real and alive, but also enjoy celebrity status. But these fairy-tale folk are not the harmless innocents you always assumed them to be; their world is neck-high in murder, sex, deceit, and other shady dealings. Thus Jack, Mary, and their miscellany of comrades-in-arms at Reading's Nursery Crime Division are forever tasked with the cases other cops are too good (or too square) for: keeping some semblance of order in the world of fairy-tale creatures.


Not to mention the world's desire to ensure that detectives stay not merely efficient but also readable; after all, no matter how good you are, unless you drive a Cool Car and have a chief who drops you from the case every month, how can anyone be interested in reading about your adventures after the fact?

Think of it as Shrek meets the Police Procedural.

Not to be confused with the Genesis album Nursery Cryme.


The books in the trilogy are, in order:

  • The Big Over Easy
  • The Fourth Bear
  • The Last Great Tortoise Race (not yet released)

The Nursery Crime series provides examples of the following tropes:

    open/close all folders 

Tropes shared throughout the series:

    In General 
  • Aliens in Cardiff: Reading is a haven for fictional characters and anthropomorphic animals, and all of Earth's alien visitors live there.
  • The Alleged Car: Jack's cars. He chooses bland, poorly designed 70's British cars to differentiate himself from Chymes. In The Fourth Bear, he purchases a car designated "Feeblest British car of the seventies." His cars have a tendency to end up wrecked by the end of the book.
    • His car in The Fourth Bear is actually this trope weaponized. The odometer runs backward, and once it reaches zero, the car explodes, killing the villain in the process. It even has a portrait inside that gets more and more damaged a la The Picture of Dorian Gray- who happens to be the guy who sold him the car.
  • All Myths Are True
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: If you're paying attention in The Fourth Bear, you might notice that Jack's theories aren't any crazier than Chymes' were, yet Briggs doesn't believe him. Because Chymes turned out to be a fraud.
    • Briggs has a real problem with this in general. Despite living in a world where nursery rhyme characters are demonstrably real he is unwilling to believe almost any theory remotely connected to them.
  • Author Appeal:
    • Fforde really seems to like his cars. If a car is mentioned, you can count on him giving the year, model, and even a brief manufacturing history.
    • Characters with double-letters in their names, likely due to the author's own last name.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: The Rambosians.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Ashley. Understandable considering that he's an alien, and naturally doesn't understand all the complexities of human social interactions.
  • Continuity Nod: Jack makes an early reference to his happily married family life that's actually a joke for anyone who's read The Well Of Lost Plots and remembers the early drafts of "Caversham Heights".
    • Mary lives in a converted flying boat on the nearby lake, as she did when Thursday Next was playing her character in "Caversham Heights" (in The Well Of Lost Plots). One of her neighbours lives in an old submarine. In WoLP it was Captain Nemo, living away from the narrative on a book transfer. Here, she doesn't know how the submarine got there.
    • In The Big Over Easy, Mary pulls out in front of a convertible with the top down and a "distinctive color scheme".
  • The Coroner: Mrs. Singh
  • Cowboy Cop: Jack, particularly in the second book, where his unconventional gambits increase in frequency and he relies on several questionably-legal gambits to solve cases. Downplayed in The Big Over Easy, where Jack is a By-the-Book Cop compared to Chymes, who outright falsifies many of his cases. Throughout the series he relies on unusual allies and narrative intuition more than conventional police tactics.
    • Seems to be a deliberately Invoked Trope by Briggs (through his frequent suspensions) and many of the Detective's Guild members to make for better press.
  • Da Chief: Geoffrey Briggs, commissioner at the NCD. Duty bound to suspend Jack at least once an investigation.
  • Does Not Like Spam: Jack Spratt hates fat.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Mary's ex-boyfriend Arnold, who she dumped a total of 734 times, and who was awarded "Most Dumped Boyfriend" in a recordbook. Mary's schemes to avoid his phone calls are an ongoing gag.
  • Expy: Jack, Mary, Lord Randolph Spongg, Lola Vavoom, and Prometheus, from Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series.
    • The Fourth Bear also features Dorian Gray as a used car dealer peddling appropriately macabre merchandise, and Caliban from Shakespeare's The Tempest as a pest in the Spratt household.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Reading, England.
  • Fantasy Kitchen Sink: See They Walk Among Us.
  • Genre Blindness: The nursery characters often don't realize that they are PDR (Persons of Dubious Reality). It's heavily implied that several members of the Nursery Crime Division are nursery characters themselves and are unaware of it, although Jack does show some flashes of insight.
    • In The Fourth Bear, it's revealed that Jack did know, but that he had actively forced himself to forget.
  • Genre Savvy: Pretty much everyone. Members of the Guild of Detectives are not only selected based on stereotypical "detective traits" (drinking problems, vintage cars, unsteady love affairs) but are also accompanied by sidekicks who write their friends' adventures, Watson-style, to appear in 1930s-style crime comics. The entire police department also seems to have learned their procedure entirely from 1970s American cop shows. In The Fourth Bear, the NCD officers discuss which plot devices to use in their investigations.
  • Happily Married: Jack and Madeline, much to the chagrin of Guild of Detectives, who expect a more dramatic love-life.
  • Innocent Aliens: Ashley, and his parents.
  • Lead Police Detective: Jack Spratt
  • Massive Multiplayer Crossover
  • Mayfly–December Romance: Jack's daughter falls in love with (and later marries) Prometheus. Yes, that Prometheus.
    • Actually Averted, as Prometheus has decided to give up his immortality when Pandora gets to match his apparent age.
  • Memory Jar: The Rambosian aliens are filled with a fluid that keeps their memories. They keep jars of this fluid, and regularly back them up with newer memories. If they suffer some fatal misfortune, they can be patched up, refilled and returned to life.
  • Never Live It Down: In-Universe, Jack has a reputation for killing giants that he's at pains to deny.
  • Nursery Rhyme: Obviously.
  • Physical God: Prometheus and the Jellyman.
  • The Plan: Guaranteed in anything Jasper Fforde writes.
  • Race Against the Clock: Happens several times, as fitting for any mystery/thriller:
    • In the first book, Jack has five minutes to diffuse a sandwich-based bomb.
    • In The Fourth Bear, Jack initiates his own race against the clock, giving himself 12 hours to solve the case. 12 hours is the amount of time for the Secret service to find out he helped Bartholemew, their Fall Guy escape capture. This is when the plot starts snowballing.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The members of the severely-underfunded NCD are all rejects from other divisions due to some combination of utter weirdness or a tendency to piss off their superiors, but they make a good team.
  • Shout-Out:
    • At Castle Spongg, Lord Spongg mentions that the Norwegian Blue has "beautiful plumage". Among many, many more.
    • The bears live at the Bob Southey.
  • Stealth Pun: It's all about characters from nursery rhymes and mythology, crime-solving guided by knowledge of tropes and plot devices and the way nursery rhymes play out, set in the town of Reading, (even if it is pronounced "Redding".)
  • Tanks For The Memories
  • Theory of Narrative Causality: Very much in effect in regards to the nursery characters. However, Jack takes care to point out that things don't always play out exactly like in the stories. Nevertheless, he often exploits this to solve or prevent crimes.
  • They Walk Among Us: Fairy tale characters, Greek gods, anthropomorphic bears...
  • Threshold Guardians: See No Fourth Wall.
  • Turn in Your Badge (and watch Columbo.) Happens to Jack quite a lot - he holds the record for "Most Suspended Police Officer (UK)" - as much for dramatic purposes as anything else.
  • Weird Trade Union: the Guild of Detectives, with an iron grip on the publication of crime write-ups. Membership can make or break a detective's career.
  • Writer on Board: In The Big Over Easy Fforde's fears of Adaptation Decay shine through when an actress' career is destroyed after she appears in a terrible film based on The Eyre Affair.
    • The Fourth Bear also offers a scene where Jack and his wife attend a gala honoring the year's most prolific writers, and Jasper Fforde, author of wacky fantasies, really seems to have some fun portraying authors of serious drama as a bunch of shallow, self-obsessed, slow-witted snobs with no imagination.

Tropes present in The Big Over Easy:

     The Big Over Easy 
  • Affably Evil: In The Big Over Easy, Lord Spongg is extremely sympathetic and helpful to the investigators, but leads a bioterrorism plot, tries to kill Jack (twice!) and Humpty.
  • The Alcoholic: Humpty-Dumpty. Also defied with Jack, who is not one even though it is expected of him as a Detective (and would make for better press).
  • Bat Deduction: This is actually invoked by many detectives, as it makes for more interesting stories and adaptations. Jack is one of the few who actually prefers to, y'know, investigate crimes. Chymes is easily the most popular detective in Reading. In one of his press confrences he explains that he deduced from some custard on the victim's sock that he was trying to send a message to Chymes, the only person smart enough to figure it out. Custard in French is "creme anglaise", which is an anagram for one of the suspects. Unfortunately, anagram-based clues had recently been ruled inadmissable, so he had to DNA test the crumbs around the fatal gunshot wound, which turned out to be from a certain bakery chain, which they staked out and caught the suspect fingered earlier entering. She immediately confessed.
    • Towards the end of the first book, we find that Friedland Chymes basically faked a case entirely; the person who confessed and got "jailed" was an actor. The implication is that most of his cases, were faked, as well as those of lots of other detectives, which means that there are plenty of murders running around scot-free.
  • Benevolent Boss: Lord Spongg's company is known for being a great place to work, offering a lifetime of benefits for workers.
  • Bomb Disposal: Jack has to do this near the end of The Big Over-Easy, with an elaborate puzzle involving a two-way mirror, an identical twin butler, and a rapidly-curling sandwich.
  • Captain Ersatz: Friedland Chymes is an only-slightly-exaggerated Sherlock Holmes. He has an assistant called Flotsam, and a reputation for seeing straight through hugely complex cases based on a few minor details - in one instance, he identifies the murderer based on the word he played in a Scrabble game. (However, it is mentioned elsewhere that Sherlock Holmes himself existed in this world.)
    • Also a subversion, as Chymes is eventually revealed to be the polar opposite of Sherlock Holmes—a corrupt, selfish, incompetent, opportunistic, backstabbing fraud, who regularly steals credit from other, worthier detectives and even fakes his own investigations for the sake of popularity.
  • The Casanova: Humpty-Dumpty, somehow. May be shades of Kavorka Man (he is a large egg, after all), but Humpty is recalled as a kind gentleman.
  • Chekhov's Gun: In The Big Over Easy, Jack's mother repeatedly asks him when he's going to remove his three bags (full) of wool from her shed, which just fits into the mileu of jokes, puns and references to nursery rhymes until the bags cushion his fall from the beanstalk, saving his life.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Mrs. Dumpty drowns herself in a vat of cookie dough.
  • Cuckold: Solomon Grundy
  • Dirty Cop: Friedland Chymes, and maybe lots of other guild detectives as well. Chymes tampers with evidence and falsifies entire cases in order to sell books.
  • Eccentric Millionaire: Lord Randolph Spongg.
  • External Combustion: How Lord Spongg intended to kill Humpty. Instead, Jack ends up on the receiving end of it.
  • Fun with Palindromes: Otto Tibbit (and his sister Hannah).
  • Gambit Pileup: Pretty much everyone was trying to kill Humpty Dumpty, either as part of a larger plan, or just out of revenge.
  • Literary Allusion Title: The title is a pun on The Big Easy.
  • Lotsa People Try to Dun It: Nearly every suspect in the book actually tried to kill Humpty Dumpty, but didn't succeed. His ex-wife thought she shot him, but actually killed his friend, Lord Spongg wired his car with a bomb but Humpty didn't drive it it, and Solomon Grundy hired a hit man who shot Humpty when he was already dying. The real killer? Humpty's crazy doctor who used him to incubate a monster, killing Humpty (who is literally a large egg) when it hatched.
  • Lovable Rogue: Humpty Dumpty. Involved in money laundering and all sorts of illegal schemes, but does it all to fund causes he believes in.
  • Mad Scientist: Dr. Quatt
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: In The Big Over Easy, Lord Spongg's desire to revive his company is understandable given its upstanding role in the community and for the workers, but his plan involves several murders and infecting the entire city with verrucas.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: The pugnacious, bull-necked 60-something Solomon Grundy is married to Rapunzel.
  • White-Dwarf Starlet: Lola Vavoom.

Tropes present in The Fourth Bear:

     The Fourth Bear 
  • Applied Phlebotinum: Cold fusion from cucumbers in The Fourth Bear.
  • Ax-Crazy: The Gingerbread Man. Yes, you read that correctly.
  • By-the-Book Cop: David Copperfield in The Fourth Bear.
  • Coming Straight Story: In The Fourth Bear, Jack's investigations reveal that a prominently gay MP is into women.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Agent Parks in The Fourth Bear. The community has a popular magazine.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Biskey-Batt and the Small Olympian Bear in The Fourth Bear.
  • Deal with the Devil: The secret behind Dorian Gray's cars
  • Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit: Defied. Jack realizes that MS 4, who were involved in Goldilocks' death, are trying to frame Bartholemew for the same and will probably kill him soon after. Jack pretends to take the bait by ordering his arrest, but secretly tips Bartholemew off, allowing him to go into hiding and escape death.
  • Dead All Along: the Quangle Wangle in The Fourth Bear
  • Didn't We Use This Joke Already?: Jack Spratt is given a piece of evidence, a manila envelope with "Important" written on the front, and quips, "This could be important." When he shows it to Mary, she makes the same quip, but Jack informs her that he already made that joke, and she apologizes.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Anthropomorphic bears have a... problem with porridge ("flake"). They get addicted to it rather quickly, and it is a controlled substance when they are involved in a transaction. They also have problems with honey ("buzz" or "sweet") and marmalade ("chunk", "shred" or "peel"). Jack says he personally sees no problem with it, and his arguments in defense of it sound fairly familiar.
    • An openly gay politician with a partner and an adopted son has a shocking secret: he's having an affair with a woman and his marriage is a sham for political reasons.
  • Fall Guy: Defied in The Fourth Bear by Jack with Bartholemew. Jack realizes that MS-4, who are involved with the murders he is investigating, is setting up Bartholemew as the Fall Guy and plays along by issuing a warrant of arrest in order buy time and to protect Bartholemew.
  • Fantastic Racism: "Ursism" is the discrimination against anthropomorphic talking bears.
  • The Ghost: Angus McGuffin in The Fourth Bear.
  • Hand Wave: Parks, a conspiracy theorist in The Fourth Bear "had latched onto Jack's outlandish explanation without too much difficulty, as should you."
  • Hot Skitty-on-Wailord Action: Ashley and Mary go out on a date, have a lot of fun, but she notes that they're entirely incompatible on a physical level.
  • I'm Melting!: The demise of the Gingerbread Man.
  • Kill It with Water: How Jack, true to the fairy tale, defeats the Gingerbread Man.
  • Lame Pun Reaction: Elevated to epic art form in The Fourth Bear, where inane gossip made throughout the book turns out much later to have been the set-up for an incredibly long punchline similar to the classic "Peter Piper picks a pepper" tongue-twister. The characters even break the fourth wall to complain about the pun. "Pippa Piper picked Peck over Pickle or Pepper? Which of the Peck pair did Pippa Piper pick?" "Peter 'Pockmarked' Peck of Palmer Park! He was the Peck that Pippa Piper picked!" "No, no! You've got it all wrong! Paul Peck is the Palmer Park Peck. Peter Peck is the pockmarked Peck from Pembroke Park. Pillocks! I'd placed a pound on Pippa Piper picking P.C. Percy Proctor from Pocklington." [pause] "It seems a very laborious setup for a very lame joke, doesn't it?" "Yes", said Mary, shaking her head sadly, "I really don't know how he gets away with it".
  • Literary Allusion Title: The title is a pun based on The Third Man
  • Living Weapon: The Gingerbread Man was engineered to be a killing machine.
  • Look Behind You: Subverted at the end of The Fourth Bear: Bisky-Batt was right, the Small Olymbian Bear really was behind Jack- and armed!
  • Living MacGuffin: The aptly-named Angus McGuffin in The Fourth Bear. Everyone's looking for him, he seems to be "involved" in all the plots of the story, but he never actually appears.
  • The Men in Black: The Men in Green in The Fourth Bear. Discussed in a chapter-opening blurb.
  • Motive Rant: In The Fourth Bear, Demetrios talks in extensive detail about the creation of the Gingerbread Man when Jack calls him out as the creator.
  • My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels: When Mary attempts to speak binary with Ashley's family, she turns simple greetings into something Ashely's mother would never do or a statement about how her prawns have asthma.
  • No Bisexuals: At one point a politician breaks down claiming he was 'living a lie' when it is revealed that although he was allegedly the first gay MP he is having an affair with a woman. Jack and Mary immediately assume that he is straight.
  • No Fourth Wall: An inspector threatens to write a report about Jack's inadequacy as an NCD officer. He convinces her otherwise by pointing her out as an incidental character with whose only purpose in life is to be a problem for him to get around. She breaks down in existential despair until he promises to write a complete backstory for her.
    • When the Vicar finds out that Cripps' last words were "it's full of holes", he speculates that maybe he was talking about plot holes, hurriedly pointing out that they were holes in his vegetable plot.
      • Characters frequently commenting on Fforde's use of language. Mary mentioning after a motorcycle drives away that "screeching tyre" doesn't look or sound right despite being perfectly correct.
  • No One Could Survive That!: Angus McGuffin managed to survive the complete destruction of his laboratory by an explosion that he set.
  • Relationship Reset Button: In The Fourth Bear, Mary and Ashley get one of these when he forgets to back up his memories of the last few weeks, and then makes a Heroic Sacrifice. As far as he knows, he never got up the courage to ask her out.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Punch and Judy move in next to Jack in The Fourth Bear. They're well known, in-universe, for domestically abusing each other, and arguing very, very loudly. Yet they do seem to actually love each other—very, very loudly. They're also fairly successful marriage counselors. They beat each other into the hospital, but as they point out, this is their mutually acceptable way of working out issues (and foreplay), and after hundreds of years of marriage, they are still in love with one another.
  • Starfish Aliens: The Rambosians, despite looking like The Greys, actually have incredibly Bizzare Alien Biology and Bizzare Alien Psychology.
  • Stepford Suburbia: The Fourth Bear opens in one.
  • Talking Animal: The Fourth Bear
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Being forced to confront your fictional status can be very traumatic, especially if you don't have a lot of characterization.
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: In "The Fourth Bear," Jack is required to meet with a therapist named Virginia Kreeper. He Lampshades this and gives her an existential crisis by calling her a Threshold Guardian. See No Fourth Wall above.
  • Working the Same Case: Jack gets taken off the Gingerbreadman escape case and has to work on the murder of Goldilocks instead. The Gingerbreadman keeps showing up at sites Jack's investigating anyway, causing Jack to be reprimanded repeatedly for secretly trying to work on the case. It turns out that the man who created and released the Gingerbreadman also killed Goldilocks.
  • World War I: The theme park Sommeworld in The Fourth Bear. Construction should be finished by Christmas. No, really.
  • Van in Black: Used in The Fourth Bear by the Men in Green to transport cucumbers, among other things.