It’s hard to be a detective in a place where all those sweet characters from children’s books turn out to be much tougher in real life. In this second novel of Jasper Fforde’s nursery crimes series, The Fourth Bear (Viking, $24.95, 378 pp.), Detective Jack Spratt has plenty of crime on his hands. A gentle champion cucumber grower is mysteriously blown to bits one night soon after a visit from reporter Henrietta Hatchett, also known as Goldilocks. Then Goldilocks herself is found dead after a visit to a house in a forest where live, you guessed it, three bears. Spratt is confused by the connection: “[I]f Goldilocks’s ‘scoop’ was about deceit, skullduggery, murder, faked death and high drama in the world of competitive cucumber growing, would it really be necessary to kill her, too? I must say I’m pretty flummoxed by it all.” And to make everything worse, The Gingerbreadman, one of the worst serial killers in history and almost certainly the only one to be a cookie, has escaped from prison. The detective has problems of his own: his boss wants him to undergo psychological testing. (Here’s the rub: if he’s crazy, he’ll be sent to early retirement, but you have to be a little crazy to be successful at nursery crimes.) His new neighbors, Punch and Judy, are loud and obnoxious. And he has a growing identity crisis about his own reality.
Like The Big Over Easy, the first book in the nursery crimes series—in which Jack Spratt investigates Humpty Dumpty’s great fall (was it a push?)—The Fourth Bear is one of those rare books that must have been as much fun to write as it is to read. Fforde has a dry wit and a deep knowledge of literature, which makes the novel especially entertaining for the English major. When Spratt buys a car from used-car dealer Dorian Gray, a nice shiny Allegro with a picture of the car in its trunk, you know nothing good can come from this purchase. In these hot days of summer when everything and everyone tends to make you irritable, get a cool drink and spend some time with The Fourth Bear. You’ll soon be in a much better mood.
Jasper Fforde will read and sign at Davis-Kidd Booksellers at 6 p.m. Aug. 14.