THE FOURTH BEAR
by Jasper Fforde
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The Fourth Bear is the sequel to Jasper Fforde's The Big Over Easy, featuring the NCD, the Nursery Crimes Division, of the Reading Police Force. In this, often convoluted, but always fun, outing, Detective Jack Spratt and his team begin the book suspended, even before the investigation begins, which means that do not spend the novel investigating the death of Goldilocks or the escape of the psychopathic Gingerbreadman.
Of course, a suspension isn't going to slow Jack down (he has the ways around a suspension numbered as plot devices), and rather than actually looking into the cases he has been barred from, he manages to find enough other incidents to examine that, of course, will eventually provide him with the information he needs to save the day. Along the way, he must contend not just with the criminal elements of Berkshire, but also with a psychiatric exam required by the department. His shrink, Virginia Kreeper, not only holds him in low esteem, but may be about to shed light on the terrible secret of his past.
Not only is Jack having difficulties with the force, but his personal life is also more chaotic than it was in The Big Over Easy. Throughout the novel, he must deal with the plans going forward for the marriage of his daughter, Pandora, to the titan Prometheus. His marriage to Madeleine may be on the rocks, not just because of Kreeper's revelation, but also because his boss's wife keeps making plays for him. The situation on the domestic front isn't helped by the Spratt's new next door neighbors, Punch and Judy.
The Fourth Bear, as with all of Fforde's previous novels, is peppered with literary allusions and puns. Part of the fun of reading the book is picking them out and getting a chuckle. At times, this activity seems to push the actual plot to the background, but Fforde does a good job of tying everything together and the puns and allusions serve, in the long run, to help build a coherence to the plot. In this case, one of the literary allusions provides the key to the villain's scheme.
Clearly, The Fourth Bear is a fun novel to read. However, what really makes it work is the fact that Fforde's characters all come to life and behave realistically, even when their behavior is clearly defined by the exigencies of narrative, whether Fforde's or that of the nursery rhyme the characters originally come from. In addition, while the various investigations Spratt is looking into seem to be random, Fforde is able to link everything together in a satisfying manner.
Spratt's adventures in The Fourth Bear build on those in The Big Over Easy and manage to retain the charm of the original. In fact, the Nursery Crimes series may be able to sustain itself on the same level even better than Fforde's more famous, and equally enjoyable, Thursday Next series. Fforde's fans (old and new) will be happy to learn that next year will see additional volume in both series.
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