The Fourth Bear By Jasper Fforde

Will the Quangle-Wangle get his evil way? Not if Jack Spratt can help it
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The Independent Culture

Readers familiar with Jasper Fforde's skittish literary thriller The Eyre Affair and its sequels have had to rearrange their mental furniture to receive his provocative rearrangements of the stories imprinted into our memories in childhood. In The Big Over Easy, Fforde introduced DI Jack Spratt, head of Reading's Nursery Crimes Division and star of such investigations as the death of Cock Robin. After innumerable red herrings, Spratt identified the criminal who caused the mysterious death, "consistent with injuries from falling off a wall", of Humperdinck Aloysius Stuyvesant Dumpty.

In The Fourth Bear, angst hits in deeply. Spratt's second marriage looks rocky; Mr and Mrs Punch, neighbours from hell, have moved in next door; and his earlier triumphs are being relabelled human-rights abuses. He's still in shock after being ingested by a wolf (along with Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother) and only saved by a woodcutter's axe-incision.

So when reporter Goldilocks Hatchett disappears, and the psychotic mass murderer Gingerbreadman escapes from his lunatic asylum, Spratt is firmly told he's off both cases. But will he stay that way, given the thermodynamic impossibility of three bowls of porridge cooling at different speeds, mysterious cases of exploding giant cucumbers, and the threat of world domination from the Quangle-Wangle?

You get the picture. Take every nursery character, deluge them in puns and wit, and stir. But Fforde is more than a mad infant rampaging in literature's best-loved toyshop. The Fourth Bear is both a shrewd satire on modern times (a theme park called SommeWorld, an MP desperate to hush up his affair in order to save his vote-winning gay credentials) and an immaculately plotted police procedural - give or take a few irresistible digressions into farce.

Fforde sends up the storytelling structure laid down by the Hollywood script guru Robert McKee without losing its strengths. Suspense is tightly maintained, we hunt the elusive McGuffin, threshold-guardians bar our hero's path and things turn out well in the end. Would-be writers could do worse than read Fforde with close attention, using his website's running commentary on his methods.

But literary success needs more than method. What makes Fforde a star is not his ebullient cleverness, but the elusive sympathy factor. However ridiculous his themes seem, his characters have a compelling immediacy.

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