The Fourth Bear: a Nursery Crime
By Jasper Fforde
Published by Penguin Audio
Read by Simon Vance
There are times when an author is obviously too impressed by his own cleverness and it comes out in his (or her) writing.
The Fourth Bear is a sequel to The Big Over Easy in which our heroes, Detective Jack Spratt and his sidekick, Sergeant Mary Mary find themselves solving crimes committed by and against fictional characters that without any plausible explanation seem to be wandering about a country that might be modern day Great Britain. I say “might be” because there are too many uncalled for differences. We do not just have fictional characters – which this time around he calls PDRs (Persons of Dubious Reality) as though this has always been the case and yet the term did not exist in the first book. It has the smell of “Retroactive Continuity” or “Retcon” for short. We still have aliens who came to Earth because of our sitcoms and while once again those aliens are a fun side story to the main novel I can’t help but think that in spite of their greater prominence this time around, they are just there to fluff the story out and make it long enough to publish.
This is not to say that Mister Fforde does not have some really great and amusing ideas, but he really has trouble figuring out where and when to use them. More importantly, he seems to have no understanding of when not to use them. However, props where they are due, and his writing is far less stiff than it was in The Big Over Easy. There were actually laugh-out-loud funny jokes and I did enjoy many parts of the story and even found the story as a whole tolerable. It would have been good, but as I have said above there was too much fluff and rewriting going on.
The worst case has to be the DPR issue. The term did not exist in the first book of the series. It should have, of course, but here it becomes an obsession. In the first book Jack has an occasional twinge of factionalism as nursery rhyme and fairy tale situations affect him. In this second book, he admits, at least to himself that his is a DPR, but has kept that fact secret. Other DPRs in the story are notorious murder The Gingerbreadman (and we are forced to wonder if he is a cookie or a cake), a reporter named Goldilocks, a whole assortment of anthropomorphized animals (like the bears), Punch and Judy – who make a living as marriage counsellors and even Mary Mary. In fact there are so many DPRs I found myself wondering if perhaps everyone in the story was a DPR and just did not know it.
Indeed, that actually would have made more sense. If everyone was a DPR, whether they knew it or not, the whole thing would hang together. Unfortunately, I was forced to admit that was not the case. Too bad as it would have made the whole story a lot more interesting, trying to figure out who some of the others really were.
Once again, however, I am happy to admit that Mister Fforde knows how to construct a really good story, but forced to conclude that at least as of the time he wriote this he did not know how to properly dress it up. He has humor and it is not as dehydrated as the first time around. He has a fine grasp of plot line. He even shows a good grasp of the surreal, but somehow, I am forced to conclude he is still learning his craft. I will probably keep reading his stories for a while, though as he does seem to get better with time. At least I hope so,
I may have reservations about the content of this book, but Simon Vance reads it beautifully. So many readers might have tried to be as silly as the text and the characters in it, but no. He reads it all straight, giving the job all the considerable respect any book deserves. The reading is not dead-panned or emotionless, however, but neither does he deliver dialogue as though he is on stage, doing a stand-up routine. It is possible Mister Vance might have had to stop the recording at times in order to gain some composure (or not, I would not guess) but you would never know it from the recording.
I doubt I could have read this book to myself without putting it down many times, but I had no temptation to turn off the audio recording. In fact I had several cases of “Driveway moments” when I stayed in my car to listen to just a bit more.
So, while the story has flaws, I think that over-all it has more redeeming features than condemning ones and the greatest redeeming feature was Simon Vance as the narrator. Definitely worth a listen!