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From the moment that I read the first page of the first of Jasper Fforde's books (The Eyre Affair) I knew that this was an author who would join the select list of my all-time favourites. And so it has proved. Only the blessed Sir Terry heads him in the list, and he is followed, closely it's true, by Malcolm Pryce, of "Aberystwyth" fame and Brentford's finest, Robert Rankin. From this you will probably have gathered that I have a bottomless appetite for quirky novels. This is the genre in which Fforde excels. His world is that of the unfamiliar set in familiar surroundings.
The Eyre Affair introduced us to Thursday Next, arguably Swindon's finest literary detective. SpecOps-24 agent, Next, has featured in five stories which document her attempts and those of her Jurisfiction colleagues to ensure that the classic novels that we all know and love, remain unaltered. This is a task made all the more difficult by the ability of those with less than honourable motives, to enter and so change the plot line of these stories that many of us know intimately.
The Fourth Bear is the second in a new series of stories that centre on the Berkshire town of Reading, east of Next's Swindon. The hero of these tales is one Jack Spratt, Detective Chief Inspector Jack Spratt. That's Spratt with two "t"s. Not to be confused with Jack Sprat, who, as we all know, "...could eat no fat...".
But Jack has a secret, a secret that he has been keeping from most people, even his second wife Madeleine. Jack is a PDR, a Person of Dubious Reality. Jack and his colleague, Det Sgt Mary Mary, work in the Nursery Crime Division of the Reading police force, where they specialise in investigating crimes involving "fictional" nursery rhyme characters.
Completing the team is Ashley, an alien from the planet Rambosia, where they live out their lives watching the TV programmes that leak into space. He and 127 other Rambosians (the number is is significant) have travelled to Earth to get the low-down on their favourite serials. They all speak Binary. Somehow, Ashley has got a job with NCD and is trying his best to fit in and understand our ways. He fancies Mary, which is challenging seeing as he is blue and translucent!
Seeing that Jack really is Sprat but living under a false name, he and the other members of his team are admirably suited to solving crimes carried out by other PDRs, living amongst us, especially if you live around Reading.
Which makes life very difficult, especially as his superior officers are all "normal" people. Whilst Jack tries desperately to fight against his characterisation, others are less self-willed and it is Jack's knowledge of and understanding of their personalities that makes him and his colleagues uniquely able to figure out what is going on and to apprehend the suspects. His bosses, however, are suspicious of his every move and suspect him of being mad. They are unaware that he is a PDR.
The story proper starts after an introductory interlude, with local reporter, Henrietta Hatchett, aka Goldilocks, interviewing a local giant cucumber grower (giant cucumber that is) in the little village of Obscurity (oh what fun we can have with that name!). Later that night there is a massive explosion, which wipes out most of the village. Shortly after, Goldilocks goes missing.
Jack, however, has other problems. The psychopath, the Gingerbreadman, whom he caught years earlier and had been incarcerated in St Cerebellum's "secure" hospital, has escaped and is on the rampage. If that wasn't enough, Punch and Judy have moved in next door and the second-hand Austin Allegro Equipe that he has bought from Dorian Gray seems unexplainably indistructable.
How do all of these (if any) all fit together and how does the QuangTech mega-corporation fit into all of this? What exactly is the nature of their secret experiments and does it have anything to do with massive explosions that have been happening around the globe, and why are they constructing a World War I theme park? Include in all this the tracking down of the illegal trafficking in porridge and honey to the local bear community and you have a recipe for a wealth of puns and jokes that will have you chuckling right to the end.
Fforde has a well-proven formula for his stories. In style his Nursery Crime novels are very similar to the Thursday Next series, even down to the "News Article" with starts each chapter. In this he has been accused of sameness but then the same at some time or another has been levelled at Terry Pratchett, Robert Rankin, Bernard Cornwell, Stephen King, James Herbert... Me, if I want a different style to read I read a different author. I like to know where I am with my authors. As with my other favourites, Fforde never disappoints.
Filling out nearly 400 pages, The Fourth Bear will have you grinning and laughing right to the end. Of course, you know it will all come out right in the end and some plot devices are entirely predictable. What is brilliant about Fforde's stories are that they work at the level of a pure detective story as well as in the form of a parody or fantasy. OK, most of the events are highly unlikely but then that's the point.
There is a new NCD novel in development and the first book in a new series, "Shades of Grey" is due out this year. There will also be another Thursday next, the 6th in the series. I am very much looking forward to them all. Hopefully, Fforde won't keep us waiting too long for our fix.
The Gingerbreadman - psychopath, sadist, convicted murderer and cake/biscuit - is loose on the streets of Reading. It isn't Jack Spratt's case. Despite the success of the Humpty Dumpty investigation, the well publicised failure to prevent Red Riding-Hood and her Gran being eaten once again plunges the Nursery Crime Division into controversy. Enforced non-involvement with the Gingerbreadman hunt looks to be frustrating until a chance encounter at the oddly familiar Deja-Vu Club leads them onto the hunt for missing journalist Henrietta 'Goldy' Hatchett, star reporter for The Daily Toad. The last witnesses to see her alive were The Three Bears, comfortably living out a life of rural solitude in Andersen's wood. But all is not what it seems. Are the unexplained explosions around the globe somehow related to missing nuclear scientist Angus McGuffin? Is cucumber-growing really that dangerous? Why are National Security involved? But most important of all: How could the bears' porridge be at such disparate temperatures when they were poured at the same time?