Detective Chief Inspector Jack Spratt is the head of the Nursery Crime Division of the Reading police department. The signature achievement of his career was putting The Gingerbreadman behind bars twenty years ago. This seven-foot ginger cookie — or is he a cake? — is a killer and a psychopath who’s incarcerated in an experimental program at “Berkshire’s most outdated secure hospital,” St. Cerebellum’s.
At the beginning of The Fourth Bear, Spratt is doing well. His own status as a Person of Dubious Reality is safely under wraps, he’s just cleaned up the Dumpty mess, and he brings in another chronic offender within the first thirty pages. Things begin to go wrong pretty immediately after that. A mysterious explosion takes out a nearby town, Obscurity, and investigative reporter Goldilocks goes missing. Before long, Spratt is embroiled in black market porridge trading and the political battle over the right to arm bears. Then, inevitably, Chekhov’s cookie (cake?) goes off and The Gingerbreadman escapes.
This book is a lot — a lot — of fun, but it’s a little sloppy with its premise. The nursery rhymes of the world are a rich source of material; they’re shared pieces of culture that unite the young with the old, the rich with the poor, and even the Americans with the Brits. I’m willing to grant Fforde the use of “The Three Bears;” while not technically a nursery rhyme, the story is a natural fit for the theme and blends well with the other childhood tales. With so much juvenile literature to draw on, though, it’s puzzling that Fforde also brings in a number of elements that have nothing to do with the uniting Big Idea of a book about Nursery Crime. The plot is incredibly well-crafted, but what are competitive cucumbering, aliens, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the Battle of the Somme doing here?
This is not to say that I didn’t like it. I did. It’s fantastic. And even as I complain about the thematic wandering, I can’t help but tip my hat to the book’s finale. It’s one of the most impressively crafted endings I’ve read in any novel, ever, in terms of tying up all the loose ends (and as you’d imagine from the previous paragraph, there are a lot of loose ends).
This is a great book. If you’re feeling picky about the nursery rhyme theme, try Gaiman’s short “The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds.” It sticks to the same underlying concept but is much more strict about its source material.
If forced to choose, though, I’d recommend the Fforde over the Gaiman. It’s longer, funnier, and it pulls everything together well at the end. I’ll be seeking out The Big Over Easy, the first book in this series.
Read more from Aunt Ada Doom at Two Wrongs and a Write.