The Fourth Bear
by Jasper Fforde
Review by John Berlyne
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0340835710
Date: 10 July, 2006 List Price £12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
British summer traditions are no longer limited to strawberries and cream, a rain soaked Wimbledon, hay fever, knotted handkerchiefs, deckchairs and other such associations. For the sixth year in succession there is real summer treat to delight us in the warmth of the July sunshine – a new novel by Jasper Fforde.
Regular SFRevu visitors will be aware that I'm rather partial to Fforde's work – click the links to read my reviews of Lost in Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten and The Big Over Easy. This new novel, The Fourth Bear slots neatly into what has gone before in more ways than one. Over and above the fact that The Fourth Bear continues the adventures of Nursery Crimes Division Detective Jack Spratt and his sidekick Mary Mary, this new novel shows that Fforde is in no danger whatsoever of running short of ideas - and it is this that I find most admirable in his work.
Essentially Fforde's novels are formulaic, though it's no insult to this author to say so. If anything such a statement underlines that Fforde is a true original, for over the course of his six books, it's easy enough to recognise the traits and tropes that are identifiably Ffordian. Both the Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes books take place in worlds where literary or fictional characters are given a life outside their own respective stories. Fforde shamelessly pilfers from any source he can work into his narrative (cannily focussing on characters and works from which copyright issues are not likely to be a problem!). He sets about using these characters in ways that either accentuate their known traits or he has them play against type – there are many such examples of this in the new novel. At one point our hero Jack Spratt returns home to find that he has new neighbours – Punch and Judy have just moved in next door, and, true to character, they spend much of the rest of the novel knocking seven bells out of each. There's nothing too surprising about this, of course, but the genius of Fforde is to add something extra – in spite of their behavioural hard-wiring, Fforde reveals to us that Punch and Judy are, even after three hundred or so years together, still head-over-heels in love with each other. In fact, they run the most successful marriage counselling business in the entire region!
You'll find other traits in Fforde's work too – there is in every novel, for example, a grand parade of puns that really have no earthly right existing - puns so excruciating and so damn clever that the smile will never leave your face. In The Fourth Bear, the first of many big laugh moments happened whilst reading the cover copy - before I'd even opened the novel! The jokes are funny, yes, but what's amazing about Fforde, is that the pun pool seems incapable of running dry – six books in and each joke is as fresh as the first. In The Fourth Bear there is a lovely moment where a particular pun is being deliciously overplayed when the characters suddenly stop and there's a pause – "It seems a very laborious set-up for a pretty lame joke, doesn't it?" say's one character. "Yes," replies the other, shaking her head sadly, "I really don't know how he gets away with it." And the action continues. These grace notes litter Fforde's work, so much so that one probably doesn't even notice a number of them, but they add a self-deprecating, almost 'in-joke' dimension to the work.
Above all, the success of Jasper Fforde's novels owes much to his careful narrative assemblage – The Fourth Bear is no exception to this. It may well be peopled with bizarre and fantastical creatures; the villains may well be seven foot high psychotic gingerbreadmen; the scenes may take place in settings such as "Sommeworld" - a theme park full of rides designed to simulate all the thrills of World War One trench warfare; much of the action may well be spent in a fruitless search for a character called Angus McGuffin and the revelations at the end of the novel may well have far too much cucumber involvement than you're likely to come across in most other novels. For all this, Fforde remains absolutely and rigidly true the universal truth that "Comedy is a serious business". His understanding of this fundamental assertion makes these books work as books rather than situation comedies - there is a really well put together detective story underpinning everything here.
So, as ever, when reviewing Jasper Fforde, I end with a glowing recommendation. "Genius" is a much overused term, but it really does apply here.