Author Website: WWW.THURSDAYNEXT.COM
I love it when dumb but crazy ideas work.
The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde is a big step-up and down from the first book, The Big Over Easy, in the series last year. It was a fairly straight-forward police procedural where the criminals and victims just happened to be nursery rhyme characters. We follow the hero Jack Spratt (Yes, that Jack Spratt), a cop who heads the NCD, Nursery Crimes Division. A young investigative reporter disappears after wandering into the cottage of three bears. Meanwhile, psychopathic genius, The Gingerbreadman escapes the mental institution and goes on a killing spree.
Questions arise. How does Jack tell his wife he is a nursery rhyme character himself? Why did the Mama and Papa bear sleep in separate beds? Why were the three bowls of porridge cooked at such different temperatures? Is the Gingerbreadman a cake or a cookie? Fforde’s grasp of character is tight and the jokes work more often than not, though there is a certain quality of throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks. Jack is a great character who loves his family and is a good father, while managing the crazy crimes of his world, no gloom and doom here, unless it’s to bring a joke. You come to care about these characters, be it Detective Sergeant Mary Mary Contrary, who keeps breaking up with her boyfriend just to get back together with him and who goes against the norm, no matter how useless it would be, or blue-skinned alien Ashley who’s native language is binary and came to Earth four years ago with 127 others of his kind on a urgent mission to find out why Fawlty Towers was cancelled. There are gods, literary characters (Dorian Gray is a used car salesman who sells cars with a portrait of the car he sold in the trunk and whatever damage the car takes, it would show up in the portrait while the car stays looking new.) and normal folks caught up in the madness.
His ability to build a world is strong and after a while, it doesn’t matter how outlandish a character is, Fforde makes you accept them as they are. The jokes, as I’ve said, are hit and miss though. He often under-mines tense scenes like a crime scene by the chief suddenly cracking a pun and asking how his delivery was or never passing up the chance to tell the reader that, yes, this is indeed a cliche scene. Fforde plays with conventional and cliché cop plot points by having Jack realize that he’s thrown off every case he’s assigned and out-smarts a police psychologist by realizing she is merely a plot device solely created to get in his way of catching whoever killed Goldilocks and capturing the killer Gingerbreadman. He turns the tables and makes her down her own existence by questioning a past that was never written for her. Fforde makes this work with a sly wink and a sharp knowledge of plot devices and story structure. The action amps up as he and Mary Mary and the rest of his squad questions suspects and run into colorful villains and oddballs. Sometimes the analogies are heavy-handed, like when it’s revealed that porridge is like marijuana for bears and they bemoan that everyone would be happier if it was just legalized and taxed. It’s hard to pull off taking things like fairy tales and mish mashing genres like this while still crafting a satisfactory story with good characters and tight plotting, but Fforde pulls it off. Despite a sense of too many jokes just to see what would work, it’s full of ideas and wonderful characters and funny send-up’s to classic mother goose tales. It’s well worth your time if you want something different in your fantasy story or police procedural.
Better than: Robert Rankin’s The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse
Not as good as: Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch Books
Read if you like: Bill Willingham’s FABLES
7.25 out of 10