The Fourth Bear
by Jasper Fforde
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This second novel in the Nursery Crime series, itself a spinoff from the Thursday Next chronicles, maintains the same high pitch of literary loopiness as the preceding book. Beyond belief, Fforde doesn’t seem even close to running out of steam, even after five previous novels intensely saturated with well-read in-jokes, cosmic weirdness, and oodles of the unexpected.
Jack Spratt, lead detective of the Reading police’s Nursery Crime Division, has had some well-publicized successes lately, such as solving the murder of Humpty Dumpty and capturing the Great Long Red-Legg’d Scissor-Man. But the good press quickly disappears when an attempt to rescue Red Riding Hood from a ravening wolf goes pear-shaped. Suddenly Jack is suspended from the force, pending a psychiatrist’s decision whether to allow him back on duty.
This only adds to a complicated set of problems. Punch and Judy have moved in next door and are disturbing the peace of his neighborhood. A crooked car salesman named Dorian Gray has sold Jack a car that seems to be in league with the devil. Jack’s associates, Sergeant Mary and Constable Ashley, are becoming romantically involved, even though they belong to different species. Jack himself is plagued with marital problems (mostly relating to somebody else’s marriage), conflict with his boss, and questions about his own reality. Plus, the case he isn’t supposed to be working on (because he is on leave) keeps getting tangled up with another case he isn’t supposed to be working on (because Detective David Copperfield is in charge). He doesn’t mean to interfere, but it just happens.
Oh, I suppose you’ll be interested in knowing what the two cases are about. Would you believe me if I told you that one of them has to do with anthropomorphized bears, illicit traffic in porridge and honey, and a dead journalist named Goldilocks? Would you feel any better if I mentioned that the other case involves an escaped Gingerbreadman who is like a cookie-cutter copy of Hannibal Lecter? No? Well, then you definitely don’t want to know about the theme park based on the Battle of the Somme, the mysterious explosions that keep killing competitive cucumber growers, or the challenges of putting together a guest list for the wedding of Jack’s daughter to the Greek god Prometheus. The beauty is, it’s all so far-out that I can tell you all this, and you still have no idea what happens in the book!
Welsh author Fforde comes to this book armed with a vast knowledge of folklore, literature, and many other topics, a highly imaginative approach to the police procedural novel (never once does he claim to be describing authentic procedures), an irreverent and frequently wacky sense of humor, an eye for segments of society that want lampooning (such as the press, multinational corporations, politicians, etc.), and some illustrator friends who are always good for some neat bogus ads and front-plate drawings. So armed, Fforde blasts away relentlessly, pinning you down with a covering fire of sobering truths, sucker-punch jokes, and exciting plot developments until you surrender to his weird vision and follow him captive to the last page. Overworked metaphors aside, Fforde is an entertaining guy, and in this book he is at the top of his form.