The Fourth Bear is the second book in the Nursery Crime series by Jasper Fforde. Some of you may have read his other (a bit older and perhaps more famous) series, the Thursday Next novels. I was introduced to Fforde through Thursday Next via my mom, and in fact read the 2nd book (Lost In A Good Book) before reading the first (The Eyre Affair). I was hooked. Fforde's writing is not only brilliant, but his use of the literary world is superb. In fact, I read Jane Eyre after reading the Eyre Affair so that I could go back and reread the Fforde book to understand it better. It definitely worked.
With the Nursery Crime series it appears I will be following the same model-2nd book before the first. The hero of the series is Jack Spratt, head of Reading/Berkshire's Nursery Crime Division. In this detective book we are taken to a world so enticingly similar to our own that you may think you'll see an anthropomorphic Bear walking down the street, or an alien Rambosian working on your office ceiling. Fforde's world in the Nursery Crime series (unlike the Thursday Next novels, where it's a parallel reality) is so much like our own that we grow comfortable. Then, at the next turn, a nursery character comes bowling you over just to prove that things aren't always what they seem.
The basic plot of the book is somewhat convoluted, but I guess many detective novels are that way. I personally don't read mysteries all that often, but this didn't strike me as a mystery (although I don't know if "crime" and "mystery" and "Fantasy" all go together but Fforde makes it work). Jack Spratt with his co-worker Mary Mary and alien Rambosian Ashley is dismayed to find that he is not put on the case when the serial killer Gingerbreadman escapes from prison. What would normally be a case given to the Nursery Crime Division is relegated to another part of the force, due to NCD's mess up of the case involving Little Red Riding Hood, a Wolf, and her Grandmother. Spratt is forced to go on "leave" due to doubts about his sanity, so he works on the side with Mary investigating the disappearance of Goldilocks. This takes him into the Ursuline world of Berkshire as well as the realm of extreme cucumber growing.
Fforde is a fantastic writer, and those who may have been daunted by the literary prowess required to read most fully the Thursday Next novels will find in these books that the realm of Nursery Rhyme is king (although if you don't know about Punch and Judy-non Anglophile Americans will likely have this issue-then look them up before you read) and the stories you learned as a child will pop back up in new and interesting ways.
Sound crazy? It is. But it is so deliciously wonderful that you'll keep reading and find yourself alternately craving cucumbers and gingerbread.
P.S. If you want my honest opinion, Fforde's books far outwit and outmatch Gregory Maguire's stuff. I like Maguire, but Fforde is definitely more...fun.