The Fourth Bear (Jack Spratt Investigates #2) by Jasper Fforde

The Fourth Bear  - Jasper Fforde
The Gingerbread man, a lethal serial killing cookie, has escaped from prison and is rampaging through Reading. But Jack is off the case – his unfortunate miscalculation that involved Little Red Riding Hood being swallowed by a wolf has left him with a bad reputation and he’s officially suspended – but also free to pursue a related missing person’s case.
As he deepens the search (and continues to haunt the Nursery Crimes offices) for the missing Goldilocks, clues eventually lead to the Three Bears and the greater Ursine community and soon a whole conspiracy is revealed involving Porridge, an MP, a huge multi-national corporation and some giant cucumbers.
It’s another whacky mystery in Berkshire, where fairy tales are real, where anthropomorphic bears roam around and get high on illicit porridge. Where characters from a nonsense poem run one of the world’s biggest corporations, where Dorian Gray sells unaging cars, a serial killing gingerbread man and binary-speaking aliens manage to be even more dull than most people.
This has so many of the classic elements of the first book – taking fairy tale dramas and working them into reality often hilariously (even in tiny little side dramas – like the Dish and the Spoon eloping to Gretna Green) and generally filling a very twisty, fascinating and nuanced mystery with lots of the fantastic, the silly (and outright recognised as such) and humour. And that’s important – because it does take a twisty, fascinating and nuanced mystery with lots of epic conspiracy and clues and knotty problems that would be good on its own right – it doesn’t rely entirely on the excellent silly fun to make this book work.
There was also some excellent character moments – Jack and Madeleine, for example but also Mary and the alien officer Ashley were quite fun together
I think there is a slight moving away from actual fairy tale characters in this book – though they are still very much apparent (such as Godlilocks and the three bears), since a large number of the characters are actually from a nonsense poem by Edward Lear. Equally, I think there was less of the detective snark and parody that I so loved in the first book – the Guild of Detectives was less in evidence and the newspaper excerpts were less apparent. We did have some great ongoing jokes about the various plot devices the detectives use to run their investigations which always made me laugh.
The book went deeper rather than wider – rather than covering more fairy tales and fictional elements made real, instead it poked a lot more on what it means to have the fictional be part of reality. So we have Punch and Judy living their bizarre, violent lives and being drawn into it time and again, unable to avoid their cycle of constant violence (even if they are amazing marriage counsellors). We have Goldilocks who, when entering the house of 3 anthropomorphic bears, could only go one way or Jack Sprat simply cannot bring himself to eat fat. Punch and Judy also bring another nuance – their stuck narrative has left them anachronisms in the modern world – their constant violence against each other grossly repellent to modern sensibilities even while the ongoing telling of their story keeps forcing them down the same narrative path.