The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde
The Fourth Bear is the second novel is Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next spin-off ‘Nursery Crime’ series. The first novel, The Big Over Easy, was a lot of fun but it didn’t quite win me over to the concept of solving nursery rhyme themed crime in Reading as well as The Eyre Affair won me over to the concept of literary detectives in Swindon. Overall, The Fourth Bear is an improvement over The Big Over Easy, but as fun as it is, Jack Spratt still can’t quite eclipse Thursday Next.
Following the Nursery Crime Division’s rise to success following the events of The Big Over Easy, Jack Spratt and team are once again the whipping boy of the Reading police force, due to the bungling of a case involving a girl in a little red hood and her grandmother being eaten by a wolf. Jack is suspended (again), with his sanity now in question, but he is nonetheless drawn into the investigation into a missing journalist and bear rights activist Goldilocks. At the same time, Jack’s psychotic serial killing nemesis The Gingerbreadman has escaped from his asylum and threatens to resume his murderous rampage.
The nature of this strange setting, created during the events of The Well of Lost Plots, is expanded upon slightly in this book, and actually raises some interesting questions. In settings as strange as this one, a chaotic and loose approach to internal logic is usually taken, and this approach is normally the right one to go for. Fforde does elaborate somewhat on how the existence of nursery rhyme characters is an otherwise normal Reading works, with the slightly more grounded setting actually allowing the comedy and silliness to soar higher.
The Fourth Bear is much more tightly plotted than The Big Over Easy; plot structure is Fforde’s biggest weakness, with his infectious writing energy sometimes creating books which border being utter messes. The relevance and connections between the major story arcs are better established here than in many of his others, which is a bit of relief.
The jokes still fly thick and fast, but Fforde actually shows himself quite good at genuine human drama too; we saw a bit of this is the Thursday Next books during the eradicated Landen storyline, but I think this is the best case of it that I’ve seen. One scene in particular was actually very moving, although it being Jasper Fforde this still ended with a punchline. Still, this book is a comedy first, and the jokes are as good as ever.
Jack’s obvious nature as a nursery rhyme character himself is finally dealt with here, after having been largely ignored during The Big Over Easy, and it actually creates some real depth to him, although his droll sardonic attitude is still the defining character trait, which I wouldn’t have any other way. Ashley, the Rambosian alien introduced in The Big Over Easy, plays a much bigger role in The Fourth Bear, and the novel is all the better for it; Ashley is a wonderfully sweet and funny character, and I was very glad to see him gain the prominence he deserved. The Gingerbreadman also makes a hell of a villain; Fforde makes him genuinely creepy and unsettling, which is highly impressive considering that The Gingerbreadman is…well, a ginger bread man.
The Fourth Bear is funny and infectious stuff, as every Jasper Fforde book is, and is a definite improvement over The Big Over Easy. I’d be very happy to see more from Jack, Mary and Ashley, but before then I’m switching back over to the main Thursday Next books. One thing’s for sure; I am not done with Jasper Fforde!