The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde
The Fourth Bear is the second book in the Nursery Crime series (the first was The Big Over Easy) by Jasper Fforde, following the adventures of DCI Jack Spratt, Detective Sergeant Mary Mary and Detective Constable Ashley (an alien). Despite the success of the Humpty Dumpty case in the first book, the Nursery Crime Division is still undermanned and under-funded and still seen as a joke. When the serial killer the Gingerbread Man escapes from the asylum where he was kept, it should by NCD that head the case, but it is given to another department. Spratt is undergoing psychiatric evaluation (working at NCD requires a certain mental flexibility, and he is after all a Person of Dubious Reality himself, having once been the Jack Sprat who ate no fat), but he has agreed to help look for the journalist Henrietta ‘Goldilocks’ Hatchett, missing since visiting one of the top cucumber growers in Reading who died shortly after her visit in a massive explosion, and her connection to the bear society of Reading and their porridge quotas.
The magic of Fforde is the combination of tight plotting, great characters, delightful world building and a delirious sense of humour (calling the legislation for porridge quotas ‘porribition’ is just an example). His Thursday Next series had all this, with the inspired ideas of being able to enter books and the world of fiction having its own police force (Jurisfiction). The Nursery Crime series has characters from nursery tales/mythology being real people, used as the source of a taut police procedural.
The first book, although a fun read, didn’t satisfy as much as the Thursday Next books, perhaps to do with the way the book turned in the last chapters. The balance between Fforde’s genre-bending, punning and silly ideas didn’t seem to blend well with the police procedural (something that Fforde admits to in the Special Features section for the book on his website). However, in this book he has got it just right (if you’ll forgive me the deliberate allusion to Goldilocks herself); the story still stands up as whodunit but it revels more in its innate absurdity – there are the references by the characters to using plot device numbers to describe how they will solve the investigation, there is wonderfully silly tongue-twisting resolution to an in-joke (something the characters themselves comment upon), talking about Superintendent Briggs as a ‘threshold guardian’ and the way Jack circumvents the psychiatric evaluation by dissecting the secondary character nature of the psychiatrist and her role in the book. The best of all comes when, near the end, Jack explains the MacGuffin for all the deaths and skullduggery to some of the characters, including a scientist who loves conspiracy theories. When this scientist keeps up with the discussion, the line reads that his work with conspiracy theories meant he was able to digest outrageous explanations, ‘as should you’ – this line had me in hysterics on the train.
This book is a joy from beginning to end. Characters you love (even the psychotic Gingerbread Man), a tight plot, bundles of silliness and enjoyable to read. Fforde is fast becoming one of my favourite authors, with his love of the absurd and entertaining writing style. The only disappointment is finding out that the next book in the series is supposedly the last. I wouldn’t want him to keep on writing for the sake of it but, when they’re this good, you don’t want the series to stop, ever.