Once again, The Fourth Bear makes the personal library cut. Oh, don’t get me wrong; it’s as meandering as bumblebee at the height of spring, but somehow Fforde manages to pull it together for a smashing finale.
The beginning is slow and feels more like a set of loosely connected stories instead of the noir mystery it is modeled after. After starting the reader off with Henny Hatchett, a reporter who is also known as ‘Goldilocks,’ investigating some prizewinning cucumbers, and a successful capture of the Scissor-man by Detective Inspector Jack Spratt’s team, we jump to a bust on a porridge-dealing anthropomorphized bear. After a stop car-shopping with Jack, it’s on to St. Cerebellum’s where a team is discussing the heinous crimes of the Gingerbread Man. You can see where this tends to get a little choppy. As if that wasn’t enough, aliens have landed, and they are surprisingly boring, notwithstanding their tendency to lapse into binary. Eventually–and by ‘eventually,’ I mean probably halfway into the book–the joint plots of the missing Goldilocks and the escaped Gingerbread Man start to take shape.
The characters are fun, and for those who argue whether or not they are tropes, well, that’s the whole premise of the Nursery Crime Division, isn’t it? I mean, besides being crimes committed by literary–literally–people, the question is, can they step outside how they are written? But these do, most certainly, with all of them behaving in interesting and complicated ways, even Punch and Judy.
All that said, the fact that it’s a little more about cleverness and a little less about plot means I was able to take my time reading until probably halfway or more. As my friend Daniel noted, there’s a lot that is excess in this book, although some of it is enjoyable excess, such as when Mary and the alien Ashley go on a date.
There’s a lot that made me smile, including whether or not Gingerbread was a cake or a cookie (although wouldn’t a biscuit also be possible?) and an absent Professor McGuffin. Mostly it was the set-ups that has me smiling, such as the one-liners at a party at a hotel called Deja Vu, or the complete daffy scene when Mary meets an alien couple. Fforde is also quite free about breaking the fourth wall. A small example:
“Vinnie kicked the bike into life, revved the engine, clonked it into first and tore off up the road with a screech of tire.
‘You know what this means? said Jack as Vinnie Craps vanished from view around a bend in the road.
‘That the singular ‘screech of tire‘ looks and sounds wrong even if it’s quite correct?'”
I don’t particularly mind those moments, and these don’t happen as nearly as often as they do in a Thursday Next book, but it’s something to keep in mind if excessive cleverness annoys.
I still don’t think I understood the final solution, but honestly, not sure it matters. I love the two page character update after the book ends (a sort of ‘what are they doing now’). There’s a couple of faux posters at the end as well, include one for a supposed third book called ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ that looks to be never forthcoming. Overall, fun if you have the patience and attention.