Nursery Crimes detective Jack Spratt is back on the case in The Fourth Bear, and it's a much better book than its predecessor, The Big Over Easy. That was an enjoyable first book, but I found myself laughing less than I would have liked. The second volume, however, solves that problem. There are many laugh-inducing instances where I could enjoy Fforde's turn of phrase or a new concept. Virtually every one of my complaints from the first book disappeared; Fforde appears to have dropped them, or at least sidelined them. 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 wanes quickly, 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 is 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 incredible 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; the inclusion of either would have dragged it down. 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? The strong characterization of all the regulars, for one. Jack is quick of wit, slightly insane (you'd have to be to deal with the types of transgressions the Nursery Crimes division does), and he has a few personal problems to deal with, as well. Mary Mary hits it off with the alien Nursery Crimes officer and exposes a more personal side to her character. Fforde gives the other characters 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 overarching concepts Fforde invents. The book’s introduction has a set piece in a village with the most well-behaved children in the country, because it's a village where childhood warnings literally come true (like "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. The convoluted ways that bear society works, which Fforde manages to make perfectly understandable, are 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.
Despite the weirdness (or because of it), 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 among 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").
The book’s only real problem is the resolution of Jack's personal problems. It’s a little too quick, and while it results in a funny turn on the whole "Punch and Judy" phenomenon (Punch and Judy are Jack's new neighbors, 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), that's the only really good part of the resolution.
The Fourth Bear is hilarious, much better than The Big Over Easy. If you enjoyed the latter, you will really love the former. Fforde lets his imagination run wild again, and I love the results.