The Fourth Bear
by Jasper Fforde
"You don't get it, do you?... In the world of nursery crime, some things just happen, despite my best endeavors. Humpty takes a nose dive, the pigs boil the wolf -- and Riding-hood and her gran get eaten. In my world, the world of the vaguely predestined, you have to work five times as hard to involve yourself in the unfolding of the case, and ten times harder still to change the outcome." - Jack Spratt
The Fourth Bear is a very difficult novel to describe. In it's broadest sense, it is a detective novel, starring a man who solves Nursery Rhyme mysteries, the first book in the series being about the possible murder of Humpty Dumpty in his fabled fall off of the wall. This book is about the death of Goldilocks. Sort of.
Jasper Fforde yet again manages to create an incredibly complex and convoluted world. He throws dozens of plot lines up in the air at the beginning of the book: the death of Goldilocks, the serial killer The Gingerbread Man's escape from prison, the purchase of a surprisingly unused used car from a Mr. Dorian Gray, the impending marriage of the detective's daughter to Prometheus, the surprisingly banal space alien who works in his office asking his partner out on a date, the appearance of new and quarrelsome neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Punch, a porridge ring catering to addicted bears, a suspiciously giving and kind mega-corporation, and the dubious status of our hero, Detective Jack Spratt, as a PDR - Person of Dubious Reality - himself). The reader is never certain which is essential to absorb, and which is merely colorful world-building.
I was uncertain whether or not it was helpful to know the book world was actually established as a refuge for nursery rhyme characters in Jasper Fforde's other series Thursday Next. That series depicts the lives of book characters who are quite aware they are in a book. When they are "performing" for those reading the book, they follow lines and actions like they are in a play, but when they are not being read, they can do whatever they want. The first book of the Nursery Crime series was originally a dull regular detective novel, and destined never to be published, which Thursday Next hides in for while. As a reward for its help, the book becomes a refuge for nearly forgotten nursery rhyme characters and thus it rises out of its mediocrity to become an odd, quirky, successful novel.
In this second book of that world, where aliens, humans, and nursery rhyme characters exist side by side with no explanation, the characters have odd meta moments where they let the reader know they are aware they are in the book. For example, they discuss which plot device to follow: #26 Look for the serial killer even though they were ordered not to, or #38 in which they follow orders until the inept detective on the case begs for their assistance. At other times, they lament the poor jokes they were written to say. However, I was bewildered, because a book in the meta book world of Thursday Next would never be allowed to make such self-references.
Even though the story rather dense and tangled, it is still another delightful book from Fforde. He has the clever wit of a Douglas Adams with a literary bent (i.e. the town of Obscurity has dozens of graveyards because many people die in Obscurity). He leaves lots of whimsical breadcrumbs for book lovers and mystery enthusiasts alike.
The book also has "Extras". To see the website of the Nursery Crime Division, click here: http://www.nurserycrime.co.uk/
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