Jasper Fforde,
The Fourth Bear
(Viking, 2006)

It is a well-known fact that the Gingerbreadman is hard to catch.

But what if the fleet-footed baked good stood taller than a man, was stronger than a moose and was more psychotic than -- well, a very homicidal confection?

He'd be one tough cookie.

Combine a killer cookie on the run with a large, concussive cucumber, a missing journalist with golden hair and a fondness for porridge and bears, and a theme park recreating a bloody World War I offensive, and you have The Fourth Bear, the second book in Jasper Fforde's exciting Jack Spratt Investigates Nursery Crime series.

Detective Jack Spratt, chief inspector of the Nursery Crime Division of the Reading Police, is the only person to have bested the Gingerbreadman in the past -- but unfortunately, he and Detective Sgt. Mary Mary are in disgrace after botching the Red Riding Hood case, and the high-risk, high-profile case goes to a detective who just isn't up to the challenge. (Jack and Mary's recent heroic capture of the Great Long Red-Legg'd Scissorman, who punishes thumb-suckers, match-players, chair-leaners and soup-scoffers, has been conveniently forgotten by an antagonistic media.)

The novel is easily as entertaining as its predecessor, The Big Over Easy, in which Jack Spratt and Mary Mary solved the murder of Humpty Stuvesant van Dumpty. Fforde, as always, fills his stories with wonderfully unique characters, from the violent but loving couple Punch and Judy and the self-repairing used-car salesman Dorian Gray to the fluid-filled alien police officer Ashley and his kin. There are misdirections and plot twists a-plenty and, of course, Plot Devices, as detailed by necessity in Reading's improbable society.

Fforde is a modern wit without equal, spinning literary allusions with delightful dexterity and downright cleverness. Jack Spratt Investigates, with a third book already in the works, is superior in many ways to Fforde's highly acclaimed Thursday Next series -- and that's saying something. The Fourth Bear kept me engrossed, entertained and thoroughly enchanted from beginning to end.

by Tom Knapp
1 July 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.