The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'm a big fan of Jasper Fforde, but I prefer his other series. Still, to tide me over until the next Next book, I decided to give this one a try. What I found was a delightful romp through conspiracy theories definitively not involving the book's prosaic aliens, twists, turns and well-incorporated metahumor resulting in a satisfying read.
Jack Spratt (of "eats no fat" fame, occasional giant killer, necessarily insane) is head of the Nursery Crimes Division of the police force and, cast into disgrace due to fall out from a recent case, is placed at leave and at odd ends until a female reporter disappears ... and it looks increasingly that she may be the PDR (Person of Dubious Reality) Goldilocks.
Fforde does an excellent job of maintaining a tone that supports even the most self-aware commentary by the characters without jarring the reader out of the story. The humor is fast-paced and works on several different levels. This book features little clips at the beginning of each chapter with various bizarre world records. Fforde has always used flavor quotes to open his chapters, but here, it works even better: the continuing theme ties them all together nicely, and each one has relevance to the chapter that follows. It's great literary glue.
My only problem with the Nursery Crimes series is that, with occasional exceptions, I feel distant from the characters. The narration level seems shallow - we don't get deep into the characters' heads, so one feels removed from them. This makes it harder to invest emotionally, and occasionally to follow the action.
That said, I think Fforde's head works like mine (or as I certainly aspire it to work!). Ursine substance abuse, binary-speaking aliens, giant cucumbers, Dorian Gray's used cars and a serial-killing baked good all appear to have absolutely nothing to do with each other, and yet they're woven together perfectly. Fillers and details often prove to have unexpected significance later in the story. (I do think a joke about the Gingerbreadman being a "Ginja" assassin missed - just too corny and Fforde kept repeating it in a short span of space so much I wanted to apply a fried fish to his head.)
Quick, clever and highly recommended.
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