fourth bear“The little village of Obscurity is remarkable only for its unremarkableness.”

Last month I started my travels back through the books of Jasper Fforde with The Big Over Easy, and so here I am with the sequel, The Fourth Bear. Although the two are different enough and there shouldn’t be many – if any – spoilers here, you should still read them in order as most of the world-building and early character introductions have already taken place.

Last time, we were dealing with the fall of Humpty Dumpty, and this time there’s another well-known case to deal with – the breaking and entering of the Three Bears’ cottage. The tale opens with investigative reporter Henrietta “Goldilocks” Hatchett looking into a story about extreme cucumber growing. When she gets a strange call from Stanley Cripps, grower of one of Britain’s largest cucumbers, worried that his prize possession is about to be stolen, she finds herself drawn into something much bigger than herself, and a short time later, she’s dead too.

DCI Jack Spratt of the Nursery Crime Division is asked by Goldilocks’ brother, the vile journalist Josh Hatchett, to look into the case. Soon Spratt and his assistants – the contrary Mary Mary and the alien Ashley – find themselves deep in Anderson’s Wood, looking for the last place Golidlocks was seen.

But Spratt has got other things to worry about than just this. Not only has he technically been suspended from duty after a debacle involving Red Riding Hood and a wolf, he’s just bought a strange car off a man who has now disappeared, Punch and Judy have moved in next door, the antropomorphic bears of Reading are involved in the underground trade of porridge and honey, the World-War-I themed amusement park SommeWorld is readying itself for opening, the psychopathic biscuit the Gingerbreadman has escaped from his asylum, and Jack’s wife is dangerously close to finding out that he himself is a nursery rhyme character.

While The Big Over Easy is liberally sprinkled with nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters, here there are far fewer. It also does away entirely with the premise that the detectives are trying their best to be readable, and their adventures are written up in magazines and enjoyed by all. However, the book is clearly more influenced by the Thursday Next novels, Fforde’s best known series, which deal with storytelling. The fourth wall is shaky at best, with some of the characters apparently aware that they’re in a story. Jack’s therapist is dealt with when he realises she’s just a threshold guardian stopping him from getting on with his job. The reader is told to just accept a far-fetched theory late in the book without any question. And at one point, Jack and Mary break character to even insult Fforde himself.

While there are fewer characters from nursery rhymes here, we get other fictional characters, such as Dorian Grey, Caliban (from The Tempest) and Mrs Danvers, though the appearance of the latter will make more sense to those who’ve read the Thursday Next books. Again, this one makes a lot more sense if you’ve read those first, but is still enjoyable on its own level without. The jokes are nonetheless still funny, and while it takes the piss out of police procedural novels, it works as one just as well. Ashley is given more depth than in the first book, and he’s truly wonderful, and the addition of Punch and Judy who love each other but have beaten each other senseless every day for the last three hundred years is a masterpiece. And the Gingerbreadman remains one of the most terrifying villains in literature, with his taunts that he cannot be caught. Cautionary tales and nonsense poetry also come into their own here, and anyone with knowledge of Edward Lear’s poem “The Quangle Wangle’s Hat” may be quicker at picking up references.

There’s so much going on here and while it is a really good book, and very, very smart, it remains I think my least favourite of Fforde’s adult novels. That’s not to say I don’t like it, I do, and his books are all of a high standard and plotted to absolute perfection, but with the lack of many of the things set up in the first novel, it lacks something and feels more stand-alone.

The series, unfortunately, ends here. The back of the book declares that the characters will return in The Last Great Tortoise Race, but that was a decade ago now, and the book still shows no sign of appearing. Fforde originally stated that it would be a trilogy, but either his attention is focused on his other series’, or we were to take a joke midway through this book about the series never seeing its end as a foreshadow. Maybe one day we’ll return to Jack and Mary, because I for one am not done with them.