The Fourth Bear, Jasper Fforde

Hodder & Stoughton, 2006, 383 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-340-83572-9

First, a quick note to existing Jasper Fforde fans who may still be wondering if The Fourth Bear is worth reading: Yes, it is. As a follow-up to The Big Over Easy, it’s seamless. You won’t be disappointed. Go get it.

But chances are that there are no existing Fforde fans who are still wondering if they should pick up The Fourth Bear. Fforde’s fiction is so unique, so inimitably his own that he tends to attracts a cult-like following. Better yet: his books have a pleasant consistency of quality that makes it hard to quit once you’ve enjoyed one. After a highly successful quartet of meta-fictional novels featuring detective Thursday Next, Fforde side-stepped into an alternate universe of “Nursery Crimes” with The Big Over Easy: The Fourth Bear is its sequel.

As with the previous volume, Jack Spratt’s universe is a highly unusual combination of sentient animals, nursery rhymes brought to life, unique crime-fighters and strange sporting pursuits such as competitive cucumber-growing. Jack Spratt, constantly underfunded and underestimated, finds himself suspended after a regrettable incident featuring the Gingerbreadman, and must be discreet in investigating the disappearance of a golden-haired reporter last seen going into a house with three bears.

The beauty of Fforde’s fiction is how he manages to cram jokes, ideas and plots in the same space. A telling cover blurb (“Great not just because it’s very funny but also because it works properly as a whodunit” —Observer) highlight that despite the ridiculousness of Fforde’s invented universes, his plotting is rigorous and holds up to elementary scrutiny. Indeed, The Fourth Bear is his best mystery yet: I found myself reading along for the plot as much as for the jokes, especially when it veered from crime novel to thriller. The ending itself is a solid piece of suspense and action writing.

But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t jokes, of course. Among other things, Fforde spends an inordinate amount of time setting up a multi-barrelled pun so awful that even the characters in the novel remark “It seems a very laborious set-up for a pretty lame joke, doesn’t it?”, followed by “Yes, I really don’t know how he gets away from it.” [P.320]. More familiar puns, such as “the right to arm bears”, make a better impression and form the backbone of the plot. At least Fforde partially redeems himself by coining the word “thermocuclear”, not as a typo, but as a punchline. And I’m not going into that whole porridge smuggling subplot, or what happens when Dorian Gray becomes a used car salesman. Add to that an series of numbered Plot Devices that the characters can see coming, and the meta-fictional games of Fforde’s previous fiction aren’t all that far away.

But jokes aren’t all that worth remembering about The Fourth Bear. In terms of characterization, Fforde delves a bit deeper into Jack Spratt’s own history, giving him a bit of marital strife when his wife learns that he’s a Person of Dubious Reality. Meanwhile, the relationship between his assistants Mary Mary and Constable Ashley gets upgraded one notch, leading to a laugh-out-loud scene in orbit that’s too good to spoil.

I’m pleased to note that the “Nursery Rhyme” aspect of this novel is a bit lighter than in The Big Over Easy. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the concept: It’s just that as someone who grew up in an all-francophone household, my comptines are not quite the same as the ones taught in English: some of the references in the series fly way over my head, and that feeling of being left out of some jokes didn’t seem as strong in this second entry. (Although some of Punch and Judy material is very British and would benefit from a bit of contextual reading: Fforde attempts riskier humour than usual with those characters, and some of it approaches bad taste.)

Overall, this is a smooth read, easily as good as the author’s previous novels. That Fforde is writing deliriously funny novels is one thing: That he’s able to do so with regularity (at the rhythm of one novel per year since 2001) is even more astonishing. If you haven’t jumped on the Fforde express yet, go back to The Eyre Affair and work your way up: If you like the first book, chances are that you won’t be able to stop from reading them all.

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