Nursery Crimes detective Jack Spratt is back on the case in The Fourth Bear, and it's a much better book than the first one (The Big Over Easy). I really enjoyed the first book, but found myself not laughing as much as I would have liked. The second, however, solves that problem. There were many instances where I laughed for a while, enjoying Fforde's turn of phrase or a new concept. Virtually every one of my complaints from the first book disappeared as Fforde appears to have dropped them, or at least sidelined them. And the end of the book is even better, with the announcement that not only is Jack Spratt returning, but a new Thursday Next novel is coming out next year too!
The glory from Detective Spratt's solving of the Humpty Dumpty murder doesn't last long, especially after a series of mishaps in subsequent cases, such as the Red Riding Hood case, where unfortunately a few people were eaten by the wolf before the case was solved. But Spratt has more important things to worry about now. The sinister psychopath, The Gingerbread Man, has escaped from the mental asylum that Jack put him into twenty years ago, and he's going on a rampage. But Jack's not in charge of the investigation, having been ordered to take a psych evaluation. Instead, he follows up on the death of a reporter named Goldilocks, a friend to the huge bear population living in the area. After a gruesome discovery, Spratt and his partner, Mary Mary, move to uncover a sinister plot that may go extremely high up. But why does Jack keep happening upon the Gingerbread Man, and why does he leave Jack alive every time? Is he a cookie or a cake? And what do the intricacies of bear society, the illegal trafficking in black market porridge, and a theme park based on the Battle of the Somme have to do with each other? Jack may not survive to find out.
Fforde demonstrates his mastery of the absurd in The Fourth Bear, piling on the situations and incorporating multiple nursery rhymes and children's stories into an intricate tapestry that holds together remarkably well. He also moves the characters forward, dispensing with situations that were already dealt with in The Big Over Easy. Friedland Chymes, Jack's rival on the force, is gone (I figured he'd be back for the second novel). There is hardly a mention of the "the more famous and published a detective you are, the more likely you are to get a guilty verdict" idea that was prominent in the first book. These omissions strengthen the book, as the inclusion of either one would have dragged it down a bit. The publication idea was amusing throughout the first book, but I think that concept was worn out.
So what does The Fourth Bear have going for it? It still has the strong characterization of all the regulars. Jack is a very interesting character, quick of wit, slightly insane (you'd have to be to deal with the types of crimes the Nursery Crimes division does), and he has a few personal problems to deal with as well. Mary Mary is also wonderfully done, hitting it off with the alien Nursery Crimes officer and exposing a more personal side to her character. The other characters in the books are great too, with Fforde giving them just as much depth as they need to leap off the page. The various bears, the Gingerbread Man (wonderfully psychotic with a wit to match), the cops, even the incidental characters, almost all of them are fun to read about.
What make every Fforde book worth reading, however, are the concepts that he comes up with. The introduction to the book has a set piece in a village with the most well-behaved children in the country, because it's a village where the childhood warnings literally come true ("if you suck your thumb, the Scissor-Man will come and cut your thumb off"). Jack and the Nursery Crimes division have to trap the Scissor-Man, using a local family as bait. There are also the convoluted ways that bear society works, which Fforde manages to make perfectly understandable and which are also instrumental in figuring out what happened to Goldilocks. I loved the way that porridge is controlled because of what it does to bears, and what they often do to get more than their monthly quota. All of the chapter headings are entries in the "Bumper Book of Berkshire Records, 2004 edition," and most of them are hilarious as well.
Despite the weirdness, though, everything hangs together beautifully, resulting in a world that is coherent (if strange) and everything makes a weird sort of sense. Nursery rhyme and children's story characters can live and work amongst the populace, bears are the new minority with the government trying to protect them (a bill was recently tabled but voted down, called "The Right to Arm Bears").
There was only one real problem with the book, and that was the resolution of Jack's personal problems. It was a little too quick, and while it resulted in a funny turn on the whole "Punch and Judy" phenomenon (Punch and Judy are Jack's new neighbours, and they fight and make up constantly, fitting their roles from the popular stage show, but the book gives them a nice little twist at the end. Unfortunately, it's the only really good part of the resolution.
The Fourth Bear is hilarious novel, much better than The Big Over Easy. If you enjoyed that one, then you will really love this one. Fforde's let his imagination run wild again, and I loved the results. I'm anxiously awaiting the next ones.