My new favourite Welshman, Jasper Fforde, presents his sophomore effort in the Nursery Crimes detective series. The novel starts out strongly. After a brief first chapter describing a mysterious event (like the teaser trailer before the opening credits in a crime show), we jump into a hilarious stakeout situation with all our old NCD (Nursery Crime Division) pals, wherein they try to catch The Great Long Red-Legg’d Scissor Man, a parental myth come to life that holds an entire neighbourhood under a curtain of fear. Don’t suck your thumb or it’ll get snipped off, parents say, only in “Cautionary Valley”, it’s actually true. The result? Well-behaved children who always eat their soup, don’t slouch, don’t lean back in their chairs, and would never, ever dream of sucking their thumbs. Ghastly!
Jack Spratt, now promoted to Detective Chief Inspector, his Sergeant Inspector Mary Mary (who works quite well with a team and isn’t as contrary as you’d think), and several others poise nearby, waiting for the Scissor Man to show himself. The resident hypochondriac, Baker, is annoying Gretel with his sniffling and whining, Mary manages to lock herself in the closet (don’t hide in closets or you might get locked inside), and a brave lad sits defiantly, thumb in mouth, willing bait for the sting. So begins The Fourth Bear.
After his previously successful case, in The Big Over Easy, DCI Jack Spratt and his NCD colleagues continue to work in the same cramped offices on the same inadequate budget, only now without enjoying the same convenient obscurity. A couple of unfortunate screw-ups during the six months that have elapsed since the previous novel ended, and some criticism over endangering a child for the Cautionary Valley sting have demolished their credibility, and Jack and the gang receive little support when they embark on a new investigation.
The new investigation involves the mysterious disappearance of reporter, Henrietta “Goldilocks” Hatchett, last seen at the cabin of three bears, who was herself interested or implicated in missing cucumbers, mysterious explosions, questions of (anthropomorphic) bear equality, and a possible porridge contraband smuggling ring. Meanwhile, Jack is put on sick leave, pending a psychiatric evaluation (and he knows full well that no one will ever find him “sane”); the deranged serial killer, the Gingerbreadman, has just escaped St. Cerebellum’s mental health institution, is running as fast as he can, and no one can catch him; and Mary, as acting head of the NCD, has less staff resources than ever, working mostly with her alien colleague, Ashley, and her unofficial advisor, Jack, who just stopped by the office to pick something up, or drop something off, or use the toilet, and then he’s going to follow his boss’ advice and go home and watch Columbo.
Like his previous book, Fforde’s allusions trust the reader to figure it out, and nothing is overdone. Clever, readable, and a darn good mystery, The Fourth Bear also spends some time exploring just what it means to be a PDR (person of dubious reality), and touches briefly on where they come from. This is a question that turns out to be of some relevance to Jack. For the most part, however, Fforde takes a light touch on the explanations. He still mostly accepts things as they come, fleshing out his world only so far as it advances the story.
He prefaces each chapter with an excerpt from some fictional source that sheds more light on something in the world of Reading, England, which may or may not be relevant to the immediate story at hand. He did this in The Big Over Easy as well, though this time around, all his excerpts seem to come from “The Bumper Book of Berkshire Records, 2004 edition”. These are usually entertaining and a good way to introduce additional information about his world.
The Fourth Bear is a more than worthy follow-up to Fforde’s excellent last release. Highly recommended, again, and I am personally looking very forward to his next Nursery Crime novel, The Last Great Tortoise Race, whenever he ends up finishing it.